By Cindy Carcamo
Under a settlement agreement announced Friday by the Justice Department, federal officials will appoint an independent monitor to oversee the Albuquerque Police Department as it implements sweeping reforms to change how its officers use force.
The consent decree lays out nine measures that are aimed at ensuring "constitutional and effective policing, promote officer and public safety, and foster greater trust among officers and the communities they serve."
The main points call for disbanding a problematic tactical investigative unit that became something of an unofficial SWAT team, revision of when and how force should be used and implementation of a civilian police oversight agency to conduct independent investigations of all citizen complaints concerning the police force.
The move comes nearly seven months after federal officials released a damning report that found Albuquerque police have used deadly force more often than necessary, resulting in a series of unjustified fatal shootings.
The department becomes the 15th to enter into such an agreement with federal officials. Others include the police departments of New Orleans, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry has already agreed to the consent decree with federal officials. The City Council is expected to approve the agreement next week.
"With the release of our APD Settlement Agreement with the Department of Justice, I believe we are setting a new national standard for policing and police reforms," Berry said at a news conference.
Since 2010, Albuquerque police officers have shot 37 people, 27 of them fatally. The shootings are what prompted the Justice Department to open its investigation.
Damon P. Martinez, U.S. attorney for New Mexico, said the landmark agreement with the police agency will ensure effective and constitutional police service for the city.
"It is also a road map for rebuilding the trust between the community and the police," he said.
The Justice Department's report in April came on the heels of a string of fatal shootings by officers, including the March 16 death of a homeless, mentally ill man, James "Abba" Boyd, who was illegally camping in the Sandia Mountains. Boyd had been acting erratically and got into a confrontation with police before he was shot by two officers.
A video of the shooting touched off protests in the city, prompting calls for better police training, especially when it comes to interacting with the mentally ill.
David Correia, a professor at the University of New Mexico who writes about police violence and has been active in protests against the agency's use of force, said the dismantling of the department's Repeat Offender Program, a tactical unit, is significant. One of the police officers who shot Boyd was assigned to the unit at the time.
"It sends a clear message that aggressive, military-style policing has no role in community policing," he said
Mike Gomez, who won a lawsuit against the city after his unarmed son Alan was killed by police in 2010, said he was "hopeful with the consent decree" because it requires officers to wear lapel cameras and calls for more civilian oversight.
In the Justice Department report on Albuquerque police, then Acting Assistant Atty. Gen. Jocelyn Samuels called for systematic change to address what federal officials called a long-ingrained culture of using deadly force.
The settlement calls for the Police Department to consider specialized responses that would minimize the need for use of force when officers are dealing with people in mental health crisis. The agreement also requires the department to establish a mental health response advisory committee, provide crisis intervention training to all officers and expand the number of detectives assigned to the crisis intervention unit.
City and federal officials have yet to choose an independent monitor but he or she will be responsible for assessing how the department is meeting the terms of the settlement, including filing public compliance reports every four months. After two years, the department will have to file such reports every six months.
The settlement stipulates that the agreement will not be terminated until the Police Department has maintained substantial compliance for two years. Still, Correia said, the effectiveness of the decree will largely rely on the independent monitor.
"Let's hope we get a tough monitor because it'll be a fight to make sure APD lives up to these things," he said.
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