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Mountain Musing

Who is to blame for APD scandal?

—Wally Gordon

The U.S. Justice Department investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department had three tasks. The first was to determine if APD habitually uses excessive force. For this, it gets a grade of A: In 46 damning pages, it detailed in gruesome and horrifying detail the misdeeds of APD, ranging from shooting and Tasering to kicking and punching civilians, many of them unarmed, elderly, handicapped or mentally ill.

The second task was to determine why the cops are so violent. For this it gets a grade of C: It looked carefully at the internal APD factors promoting “a culture of aggression” at APD but failed to examine the external factors.

The third task was to describe how to fix the problems. For this it gets a grade of Incomplete: During a press conference, in a letter to the mayor and in its report on its 18-month investigation, it said nothing about how APD is to be compelled to change, only that there will be “negotiations.”

During the press conference by the acting heads of the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the two most important words were “systemic” as in top-to-bottom failure, and “culture,” as in widespread acceptance of excessive violence. But what do these two words mean for us in New Mexico?

They mean that we don’t just have a few rotten apples spoiling the basket for all the good folks out there. It means there are basic things wrong with the way our leaders, from APD supervisors to the mayor and governor, the district attorney and the attorney general, the City Council and the Legislature do their job.  For the past five years, Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico relied on the police department to police itself. When it failed to do so, as the DOJ report makes incontrovertibly clear, no one stepped into the breech to protect the citizens from the police.

When asked why District Attorney Keri Brandenburg had never indicted a single cop for excessive use of force, the head of the federal investigation replied, “We did not investigate the district attorney.” That was that. Yet Brandenburg is the community’s first line of defense against criminal behavior by the police.

Although the Justice Department report was not a criminal indictment, it produced considerable evidence of murder, attempted murder and aggravated assault—in other words, crimes—that Brandenburg could have pursued.

The second line of defense against police misbehavior is the mayor. Richard Berry is specifically charged with supervising city government, and by far the largest and most expensive city department is the police. Now the mayor is trying to position himself to be the implementer of the Justice Department’s 46 recommended reforms. Several years ago he ordered some 60 “reforms,” but because he failed to follow through on them, they were never really implemented and did almost no good. For example, one of the reforms was to require cops to use lapel cameras and belt recorders, but the Department of Justice found that the devices were frequently absent or turned off. Even when they were used, APD has tended to obstruct public access to these public documents. “We obviously did not do enough.” the mayor conceded last week.

The failure of Brandenburg and Berry to deal with police misbehavior will probably end their political careers. There is already discussion of circulating a petition to force Berry to face a recall election.

But what of the other politicians who failed to act? The City Council shares responsibility with the mayor for running the city but did nothing except belatedly, request that the Justice Department do its job for it (a request that the mayor vetoed).

Gov. Susana Martinez as the state’s chief executive has responsibility for everything in the state. (Remember the sign on President Harry Truman’s desk, “The Buck Stops Here?”) The police violence issue is also in her own backyard, the State Police have been embroiled in considerable controversy, particularly over shooting to death an unarmed woman who was stopped for a traffic violation. Repeated demonstrations, including one last weekend in Santa Fe, have demanded action but neither she nor her appointees have responded. Moreover, the State Police training academy sets the guidelines for police training throughout the state and trains many local law enforcement officers.

Martinez could have stepped in and ordered an investigation of law enforcement, set up a blue ribbon commission, developed a series of reforms and acted to promote them.

So could have the Legislature and Attorney General Gary King. So could have the judiciary, especially the state Supreme Court.

This was a universal failure. It was also a bipartisan failure. The mayor and governor are Republicans. The Legislature is, at least theoretically, Democratic, and so are the attorney general and the district attorney. Most of the judges, including a majority of the Supreme Court, are Democratic. The City Council has been alternately controlled by Democrats and Republicans during Berry’s tenure. Nor is the failure limited to government. Where was the city’s only newspaper? Where was the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce?

So this is what “systemic” and “culture” mean to us: When one piece of our government fails, everyone else either defends the failure or withdraws into a shell of defensiveness, ignorance and inaction.

But the systemic and cultural failures cited by the Department of Justice extend further still. Many of the people assaulted, injured and killed by violent APD officers were mentally ill. In part at least, the confrontations between them and the cops occurred because of a lack of community resources to deal with mental illnesses.

Where are Albuquerque’s mental hospitals, halfway houses, homes and custodial facilities for the mentally ill? I reported extensively on the city’s mental hospitals for the Albuquerque Voice nearly 25 years ago; if I were to undertake the same investigation today, there would be nothing to write about because there are no mental hospitals.

Many of those involved in the violent cop incidents were former convicts. But where are the facilities to deal with prisoners after they are released? Just last week the state reported that it is seeking a contract for an enlarged women’s prison at Grants. Why do we need an enlarged prison when the crime rate is falling? In large part, due to the fact that 100 women prisoners who are eligible for parole remain behind bars solely because there are no community facilities for them to be paroled to.

All those problems are interrelated in complex ways. For example, a Justice Department study found that 75 percent of women prisoners are mentally ill.

Recently, the state cancelled its contracts with all 15 providers of mental health services on the basis of an audit whose original, uncensored version said there were no major problems with the providers.

Some might argue that Albuquerque cannot afford better social services, yet it is finding a way to pay vast sums to compensate victims for cops’ misbehavior. Already the police have lost lawsuits totaling $28 million in the past several years, and that figure is certain to grow astronomically in the wake of the Justice Department investigation.

I do not intend to absolve APD of the mess it has made of itself, but we need also to focus on our broader systemic and cultural failures. What kind of society do we want to have? One where police (not just APD but the State Police and many country sheriffs and other municipal police departments) are trained to maim and kill at the first sign of trouble? One where the mentally ill have no resources? One where prisoners are kept behind bars when they have earned parole because they have nowhere to go? Where we build prisons to hold those who don’t belong there because we don’t build a different kind of community?

The scandal over APD—arguably the biggest scandal in New Mexico history—is an opportunity for all of us in New Mexico to look at ourselves in the mirror. I for one don’t like what I see.

This article was reprinted from The Independent, April 16, 2014—an independent newspaper of general interest to residents of the East Mountains area of greater Albuquerque.

 re: a fear of boarding

Dear Friends Back East,

Since my last note to you, I’ve taken another flying trip. This time, I flew to Portland, Oregon, obeying a sudden urge to experience soddenness, splashiness, shadiness, and foggy, foggy dew.

The roundtrip flights were enjoyable, providing stunning views of snowy mountain peaks and deep-dark gorges, interrupted only by an occasional struggle to pull open a foil package of peanuts (contents: nine units) without using my teeth and without spilling my tomato juice. I did, however, find the airport boarding processes a bit alarming, to say the least.

For example, as I stood at the Albuquerque airport gate, waiting to board the regional airline that would take me to Salt Lake City for a connecting flight, I experienced the scenario below, (and I am not exaggerating or inventing a single detail. I would never do that).

The airline’s gate agent opened the process by first inviting passengers with small children, or those requiring assistance, to begin boarding. A couple of minutes later, she announced that:  “first class passengers are now welcome to board the aircraft.”

Next was her announcement that their frequent flyer passengers with “platinum status” may board. That announcement was followed by an invitation to passengers with “gold status” to proceed up the ramp. Then came the boarding call for “silver status” passengers.

I continued to stand there patiently, staring at the carpeting, fondling my carry-on.

“Passengers who enjoy aluminum, chromium, or titanium status with oak leaf clusters may now board,” was her next cheery announcement. A few minutes later, she graciously solicited passengers who “enjoy manganese, nickel, or zirconium status with one or more bronze stars” to board the aircraft. Next were cobalt-, zinc-, and tungsten-status passengers, of which there was a sizable number.

“Passengers who are carrying our airline’s credit card, containing the full color image of our latest generation 737 passenger jet, or one of our current turboprop aircraft, are now welcome to board.” Thus several more people were checked and allowed onto the jet way.

“And now any passenger who has a discernable tattoo of any style aircraft whatsoever on their upper torso or on either ankle that is easily displayed may board. A tattoo image of Amelia Earhart, or either of the Wright brothers, or of Mr. J. Sorensen, our founder, would also be acceptable.” Six more were allowed to board, and I now stood alone in the boarding area.

“All remaining passengers may now board,” the agent finally announced, with a lovely, personalized smile. I boarded and took a seat. I sat between a fellow with two-star manganese status and another with Orville Wright’s face tattooed on the back of his hand.

It is now likely I will join the growing ranks of the tattooed for fear of being denied admittance on future flights. I am searching for a parlor that can incorporate on my person an image of the WWII carrier-based Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter plane. It would match my personality and make our old feline fighter Patrick proud of me—and a bit envious, I suspect. Write soon.

—Your Friend, Herb, Placitas


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