By Keegan James Sarmiento Kloer and David Correia
August 16th, 2020
“Albuquerque police killed two more people last week, but Mayor Tim Keller continues to claim that defunding APD isn’t the answer and reform at APD is working. Should we believe him?”
An Assessment of Court-Ordered Police Reform in Albuquerque
By Keegan James Sarmiento Kloer and David Correia
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller says the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) is making progress at police reform, but you can’t ask Albuquerque residents Ken Reiss and Jose Vallejos what they think about Keller’s claims. APD officers killed them last week.
Reiss, the co-owner of a beloved college-area dive bar in Albuquerque, wore a tattered ball cap to work and always remembered a customer’s order. Jose Vallejos lived at the corner of Sooner Trail and Pecos Trail on Albuquerque’s west side with his spouse and their dog. Last Monday Albuquerque police officers killed them both of them in two, unrelated shootings.
Police responded to a dispute among neighbors in the evening and killed Vallejos in his front yard. Later that same night Reiss called 911 to report a home invasion. Police killed Reiss when they arrived. Two shootings, five hours and a few miles apart, by a department that for years has consistently ranked among the most lethal police departments in the country.
These new killings by APD come in the wake of nationwide protests against police violence that erupted after the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others. Keller says APD is making progress at reform. Anti-police violence organizers in Albuquerque disagree and have staged protests and marches against APD over the past months demanding that Albuquerque defund and eventually abolish its police department.
There is good reason to abolish APD. In 2014, police in Albuquerque committed 21 percent of all homicides in the city. A Department of Justice investigation in the same year found “a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing” at APD. It has since operated under an intensive federal Court Approved Settlement Agreement (CASA) which imposed reforms on APD related to its use of force, its training, its supervision, and more.
Keller, a Democrat, rejects calls to defund APD. He presented himself during his campaign as the reform mayor, committed to “constitutional community policing.” Since his election, he’s made statement after statement touting APD’s tough-won “progress” under his watch. “We are in a little better place than we were five years ago,” he’s said. “We have firsthand experience with the positive change that can come from common sense police reform solutions.” So confident is Keller in that claim, he proposes increasing APD’s budget and putting more cops on the street.
Is Keller right? Has APD has made progress under his watch? Or are these two most recent police killings evidence that reform doesn’t work? In order to answer these questions, we analyzed thousands of pages of reports on APD and its reform efforts filed over the past five years by the independent monitoring team assigned by the federal court to supervise reform at APD.
If Keller is right, and APD is making progress, we’d see evidence of that somewhere in the eleven reports filed by the monitoring team over the past nearly six years. We focused our analysis on the monitoring team’s assessment of APD’s accountability mechanisms, its use of force policies and practices, and its use of force investigations.
As the recent police killings demonstrate, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The choice between defunding an APD that can’t be fixed or believing Keller’s claims of progress and hiring more cops is the difference between life and death.
Assessing Keller’s Claims of Progress and Compliance at APD
To oversee APD’s compliance with the CASA, the federal court appointed Dr. James Ginger and his consulting firm PMR, Inc as its independent monitoring team in January 2015. Ginger is a former cop-turned reformer who has overseen court-ordered police reform in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To be clear, he and his team do not advocate defunding police. But the team doesn’t pull its punches with APD.
The CASA identified 276 “problem” areas at APD in the court settlement. Since 2015, Ginger and his team have published eleven comprehensive reports in which it assesses APD’s progress related to these problem areas. These are long reports—usually more than 300 pages—that detail and assess every aspect of the reform process, grading APD on its progress meeting reform goals during each reporting period.
To satisfy the federal court, APD must demonstrate compliance in three areas in every problem area. Primary compliance measures progress in policy. Has APD written a better policy that now conforms to law and best practices? If so, it is in Primary compliance for that area. Secondary compliance measures progress in officer training. Has APD designed and implemented new training practices related to this new policy? If so it in Secondary compliance for the area. Operational compliance measures the degree to which new policies and training are “apparent in the day-to-day operation of the agency.” Primary and Secondary compliance make no difference if police practices on the street remain the same.
The 2014 federal investigation of APD provided example after example of APD’s unconstitutional use of Tasers. Officers, the investigation noted, once Tasered a man suffering a mental health crisis who police knew had poured gasoline all over himself. He burst into flames.
In the most recent report (IMR-11), the monitoring team found APD in 100 percent Primary compliance related to the use of Tasers with all the requirements of the CASA. The team assessed APD’s Secondary compliance at 93 percent. When Keller touts APD’s supposed dramatic improvement, it is often Primary and Secondary compliance to which he points. But when we dug deeper into the reports, particularly related to patterns of Operational non-compliance, we find a different story.
Keller said recently he’s been “lean[ing] into [reform] and get[ting] it done as fast as we can.” But in the most recent report (IMR-11), the monitoring team rated APD’s overall Operational compliance at 66 percent. The previous report rated overall Operational compliance at 63 percent. Since Keller became Mayor, which began just before the monitoring team’s eighth reporting period, Operational compliance has only increased by 7 percent. And these numbers obscure more than they reveal.
The vast majority of the reforms rated by the independent monitors as Operationally compliant are standard administrative tasks or projects. According to the court, APD developed fair performance evaluations. It commissioned a staffing assessment and resource study. It now maintains its policies and procedures in an “indexed and organized manner.” In other words, APD is better at clerical work. But these improvements fail to address the most serious deficiencies that got us here in the first place: the “pattern or practice of use of excessive force,” to quote the 2014 federal investigation, by cops at APD.
APD’s Problem Areas, Before and After Keller
We focused on those “problem areas” related to police violence—APD’s use of force, its use of weapons, its use of force training, its investigations of force, its oversight of those investigations—in order to evaluate Keller’s claims that APD is making progress. The short answer: it is not making progress by any measure in any meaningful way.
APD is out of Operational compliance with almost every court requirement in these areas. For some, APD is not even in Secondary compliance. In other words, after nearly six years of federally ordered, court-supervised reform, APD has yet to even begin to address some of the core issues raised years ago related to its routine practice of violent, unconstitutional policing.
This has not stopped Keller from declaring victory. We “reformed our internal investigations division and we have tried, we did over-haul [sic] our use of force policy,” he recently said. As we saw above, APD did write new policies and restructure certain bureaus and divisions. It did revamp internal affairs and create a new use of force policy. But, in the monitor’s words, “APD’s [Internal Affairs] function continues to reveal serious defects that hinder the proper remediation of [officer] performance deficiencies and the application of discipline.” Where the rubber meets the road, APD refuses to change.
But perhaps Keller deserves some credit. Maybe what little progress APD has made in Operational compliance has come entirely under Keller’s administration, and thus constitutes progress. We reviewed the reports immediately before Keller’s inauguration as mayor, and those released since he’s been in office, in order to consider this.
In the report released in November 2017, just prior to Keller’s inauguration (IMR-6), the monitoring team found that APD officers routinely turned off their OBDRs (on-body recording devices), or muted the sound, or their supervisors failed to review their videos when evaluating use of force. The monitoring team found “no substantive work product that indicates any of the remedial work… has been started or completed.”
Every time an APD cop uses force, they are subject to review of that force by a supervisor. But the monitoring team noted in IMR-6 that APD constantly tried “to ‘walk back’ the number of OBRD reviews supervisors were required to conduct on a regular basis, reducing the number of reviews substantially.” Supervisors routinely classified punching, choking, the use of Tasers, even the use of chemical weapons as something other than uses of force. This problem was, and is, so entrenched and pervasive that the monitoring team called for a wholesale restructuring of the department. “The APD has reached a point where they must consider the efficacy of their entire use of force oversight system and how it aligns with the reform progress to date, especially given the attitudes of supervisors and commanders within that system to excuse behavior that contravenes and undermines compliance efforts,” the team wrote in the last report before Keller became Mayor (IMR-6).
There is no evidence of compliance in any of the monitoring team’s reports released prior to Keller’s election as mayor, as IMR-6 makes clear. What progress can we find in the years since Keller took office? In the first report closest to Keller’s inauguration (IMR-8), released in November 2018, the team described a use of force investigation in which the supervisor “did not even view the majority of OBRDs of the other officers” involved in the incident. The monitoring team reported that APD was out of Secondary or Operational compliance in 11 out of 12 areas related to the use of OBRDs. Just like IMR-6, cops during the IMR-8 reporting period frequently didn’t turn their OBRDs on, or they turned them off, or they muted the sound. No significant difference from before.
Despite this, Keller continues to invoke APD’s use of OBRDs, in particular, as an example of reform progress. In July he tweeted, “Modern technology like body cameras are a necessary 1st step toward reform.[APD] is leading in NM by embracing effective policies, training & accountability that must accompany that technology.” Like many other reforms required by the CASA, APD has promulgated new policies that govern the use, training, and supervision related to the use of OBRDs. The monitoring team rated APD in Primary compliance. And APD has created training practices to address some of these new policies. Secondary compliance, check.
But despite what Keller claims in public, APD remains out of Operational compliance. In the most recent report, released just over three months ago, the monitoring team found APD out of Operational compliance in 8 out of 12 areas relating to OBRDs, including proper use, training on the devices, and reporting reasons for failing to use them.The team wrote that officers sometimes don’t “turn them on, or leave them on, during a use-of-force event.” This is the same pattern APD displayed four years ago. Supervisors continue to overlook these failures in ways that thwart accountability for officers under their command. In the monitor’s words, “[f]ailure rates related to OBRD operations in the field this monitoring period are still unacceptably high.”
The monitoring team has released four comprehensive reports in the three years that Keller has been in office. In the first, IMR-8, the team found no compliance in any area that substantively addressed APD’s “pattern or practice of…excessive force”—use of force, use of force investigations, and the use of weapons. But that was just the first report. Progress takes time, and Keller claims he’s used that time wisely. But subsequent reports show no progress either. Even the most recent report finds no improvement where it matters most. If there’s evidence of progress, as Keller claims, it must be written in invisible ink because we can’t find it.
But Keller continues to sing the praises of APD, and its successful reform efforts such as with body cameras. The monitoring team, however, sings a different song. “It appears that in most Area Commands, in-field OBRD performance is not viewed as important,” the monitor notes. “This is a critical compliance issue.” As long as cops can deliberately eschew essential oversight mechanisms, reform will be, in the monitor’s words, “elusive.” And it’s not just a refusal to reform practices. The monitoring team describes department-wide efforts to avoid scrutiny in its reports. The only thing APD is getting better at is avoiding accountability.
Use of Force Investigations Derailed
Among the most important “problem areas” is APD’s long history of thwarting internal and independent investigations of its own use of violence and undermining every accountability mechanism imposed on it. Police reformists such as Keller readily admit this is true, but the present is not the past he promises. APD has learned to self-monitor the actions of their officers in the field now, Keller claims. He points to newly reformed accountability backstops such as the Internal Affairs (IA) division, which investigates use of force incidents, as the key way this is now happening. The court requires it, the new policies promise it, and Keller touts it.
In the first report following Keller’s inauguration (IMR-8), the monitor noted that the monitoring team “continue to note from our review of use of force incidents that the main sources of ‘findings’ concerning improper or deficient supervision is the Compliance Bureau and the [independent] monitoring team. [These findings] should [come from] the Command level at APD’s Area Commands.” In other words, if it weren’t for federal court supervision, few legally mandated reviews of force would even happen. And if the investigation got stalled lower down the chain of command, the violence went uninvestigated and the officer went back out on the street.
“Over the course of our engagement with APD,” wrote the monitoring team “our use of force case reviews have consistently revealed serious deficiencies in the oversight and accountability process, particularly with respect to force reporting, supervisory-level investigations and chain of command reviews.”
How are APD supervisors able to evade accountability? There are specific criteria that should trigger an Internal Affairs investigation, after all. But the monitor notes, in report after report, that APD supervisors delay reports and ignore timelines. A central theme in the most recent report is a continued lack of timeliness and serious attention given to referrals sent to the Internal Affairs Force Division. Supervisors “lose” reports, and often reclassify violence as something else. A punch to the face goes unreported. The use of a Taser goes unmentioned in an after-action report. A punch gets described as “distraction” technique. “We believe these ‘minor errors’ are direct, intentional, and purposely crafted roadblocks intended to obstruct potential discipline,” the monitoring team writes.
One way that officers avoid internal discipline is to run out the clock. Because of the police union contract, internal investigations are time-limited, with deadlines for each step of the process. In one particularly egregious case described in the monitor’s most recent report, foot-dragging by APD officers and supervisors resulted in missed deadlines that closed 24 Internal Affairs investigations before they could be finished. The monitoring team wrote that they “firmly believe” the delay was deliberate: “As a result, even though 24 counter-CASA events occurred, known misconduct was not corrected.”
In another example, the monitor described an officer who reported to his supervisor that he’d delivered “2-3 knee strikes” to a person’s side. But, the monitoring team noted, the supervisor didn’t mention the knee strikes in his own investigation of the event, “nor was it reconciled in the chain of command reviews.” And before we give too much credit to the cop for reporting a use of force, the monitoring team noted that this “same officer’s OBRD turns off at the very moment in time the knee strikes likely occurred.”
As of today, despite Keller’s claims, APD remains out of Operational compliance in almost every area related to use of force investigations. Cops and their supervisors continue to omit or reclassify specific examples of violence in their reports. Cops deliberately miss deadlines in order to delay or terminate investigations. Cops get a slap on the wrist for major policy violations, and then head right back out onto patrol. In the monitor’s words, “there is a seriously degraded willingness [from APD] to impose remedial discipline when [blatant policy] violations occur.”
The monitoring team’s criticisms are usually offered in measured terms. But you don’t have to read between the lines to get at the real story. Cops at APD, at every level, stall and sabotage court-ordered accountability mechanisms. And this is most evident in investigation after investigation of serious violations in the use of force that end not with a cop being disciplined or fired, but with a report ending in, “failure to impose discipline on sustained charges due to time considerations.” Keller knows all this but never admits it in public. Instead he describes progress that doesn’t exist. “APD’s ability to ‘police’ itself is the centerpiece of its organizational reform efforts,” wrote the monitoring team “and sits at the very heart of long-term sustainability of those reforms. In spite of exhaustive feedback and technical assistance over the years, APD has yet to enable an effective internal affairs operation.”
Unless Mayor Keller refuses to read these reports, he understands all of this. And yet he continues to describe the process as successful. As he recently said, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, “there is a high level of independence, relatively speaking, and transparency, relatively speaking, in our department now, that was both not there before.”
Move Along, Nothing to See Here
If police reform could work at all, it would work in Albuquerque, where a team of court-appointed, independent monitors has spent years overseeing APD’s every move. But it isn’t working. APD has revised every relevant policy, restructured academy training methods, and implemented new “community-policing” practices, all the reforms every reformist demanded and which, they promised, if implemented would transform APD into a model of constitutional policing. APD employs an entire office dedicated to CASA oversight and compliance devoted on paper to just this goal. It reports to a Mayor who campaigned as a police reformer and promised to fix APD. And yet, as the recent police killings show, and as the monitoring team’s reports confirm, there is no progress whatsoever where it matters most.
What should we make of this? Keller claims APD is making progress but the reports filed by the independent, court-appointed team monitoring APD contradicts his claims. Why is Keller, the Mayor of a reformist Democratic city administration, willing to go to any lengths to obscure issues of police violence. Is it for political gain?
In late July, Deputy City Attorney, Samantha Hults, on behalf of Keller, wrote a pointed letter to the United States Attorney in Albuquerque, John Anderson, declaring the City in opposition to the newly announced Operation Legend, a federal program welcomed by Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzalez, which ordered dozens of federal agents into Albuquerque to fight “violent crime.” She wrote:
The City of Albuquerque does not welcome federal agents making arrests and using force on individuals engaged in First Amendment assemblies. The City of Albuquerque does not welcome federal agents hiding their identity and the identity of the agencies for which they work. The City of Albuquerque does not welcome federal agents’ use of unmarked vehicles to detain and remove individuals exercising their First Amendment rights.
Hults demanded that Anderson provide written confirmation federal officers would not “target people or communities of colors [sic] or immigrant families.” She also demanded the feds commit to the “constitutional policing of crowds,” as spelled out by the CASA.
To anyone unfamiliar with the long history of lethal violence, everyday intimidation, and violence by APD, or to anyone who has not read the monitoring team’s reports on police reform in Albuquerque, Hults may have come off as heroic. She stood up to a Trump appointee and took a principled stand against police violence. Given our review of monitoring team reports, however, Hults’s letter looks more like a political ploy to divert attention from the failure of police reform at APD, than a principled stand against federal agents in Albuquerque.
The U.S. Attorney called her bluff: “I do not find it appropriate for the City to suggest that the terms of the CASA, which are predicated upon its own alleged unconstitutional pattern and practices, should apply equally to federal agents working in Albuquerque who lack any comparable history to that of the City.” Anderson might be wrong about his defense of federal agents in Albuquerque (the U.S. Marshals Service, for example, has a long history in Albuquerque of rogue, violent behavior), but he’s not wrong about Hults and APD. The CASA is the most intensive and comprehensive reform effort ever imposed on APD, and it hasn’t made a difference.
Mayor Keller keeps pretending reform is working. But as we reported last week, APD continues to engage in the same patterns of aggressive, violent policing it always has. It continues to kill people as it always has. So far this year, APD has killed people during welfare checks. It has killed people who have called them for help. Same pattern as always, same result as always.
Police reform doesn’t work because it isn’t supposed to work. Reform restores legitimacy in police and, as importantly, in those who defend police, such as Keller. Reform is a nightmare conjured by politicians invested in defending a social order of private property and the accumulation of personal and corporate wealth. Keller’s false claims—outright lies–about “successful” reform at APD do real damage. It undermines genuine, meaningful efforts by abolitionists to protect the victims of police and policing—the poor, the working class, people of color, those suffering from mental illness—by demanding the defunding of police and the redirecting of the hundreds of millions of dollars currently wasted on APD to services that would genuinely improve the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
But Keller, like most elected officials of all establishment political parties, supports police and police reform despite the evidence that it does not work—particularly in Albuquerque. There’s no downside to doing so. He panders to liberals who criticize “police brutality” but refuse to see racialized violence against poor people as the irreducible logic of police. And he panders to tough-on-crime moderates who support police, particularly when police use violence against poor people of color.
The evidence is available for all to see. APD cannot be reformed. But Keller lies that it does because he staked his political future on the false promise of police reform. And so he keeps backing police and he keeps touting imaginary progress of reform, which permits APD to keep beating and killing people on the streets.
Keegan James Sarmiento Kloer and David Correia are members of AbolishAPD, a research and mutual aid group working to abolish the Albuquerque Police Department. They can be reached at [email protected]
David Correia is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico (University of Georgia Press, 2013), co-author of Police: A Field Guide (Verso, 2018) and co-author of the forthcoming Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation.