ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A scathing report by the U.S. Justice Department released Thursday revealed a troubling pattern of excessive force by the Albuquerque Police Department and recommended that New Mexico’s largest city become the latest municipality to adopt reforms aimed at cleaning up its police force.
The report, which immediately drew support from Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and other city officials, came after federal officials spent months conducting interviews, scouring videos and reviewing hundreds of pages of documents. According to the report, Albuquerque officers too frequently used deadly force on people who posed a minimal threat and used a higher level of force too often on those with mental illness, often violating their constitutional rights.
In Albuquerque, federal investigators focused on 37 shootings – 23 of them fatal – by officers since 2010. By comparison, police in the similar-size cities of Denver and Oakland have been involved in fatal and nonfatal shootings totaling 27 and 23, respectively.
Federal investigators found the majority of those Albuquerque shootings were unreasonable and violated constitutional rights. They also uncovered a significant number of instances in which officers used less lethal measures such as Tasers in an unconstitutional manner.
“Based on our investigation, we have reasonable cause to believe that APD engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote in a letter to Berry. “We have determined that structural and systemic deficiencies – including insufficient oversight, inadequate training, and ineffective policies – contribute to the use of unreasonable force.”
The Justice Department recommended that Albuquerque make changes to its use of force policy to, among other things, place more emphasis on techniques for de-escalating potentially violent situations.
Samuels said the investigation was thorough and that it became clear the problems within the police department were systemic.
“The reforms we are proposing … are going to result in the kinds of structures that will over time create a change in the culture,” she said. “It starts with commitment from the top.”
She acknowledged that changes will not happen overnight.
The findings served as validation for critics who have long complained that a culture of aggression has permeated the Albuquerque Police Department. However, some community members voiced concerns after Thursday’s announcement that recommendations have been made in the past with city leaders failing to take action.
Berry said the city stands ready to work with the Justice Department to make needed changes.