APD way behind in investigating ‘use of force,’ including SWAT scenes, monitor’s report shows

Available data show a high number of cases in and around the International District

By: - July 14, 2022 5:05 am

Police in Albuquerque in mid-September, 2021. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

As advocates in the city continue to call for justice after a SWAT standoff last week resulted in a boy’s death, the Albuquerque Police Department is facing a huge backlog of investigations into officers using force and violence, according to a federal monitor overseeing police reform.

“Use of force” as the monitor defines it can include anything from officers taking someone down during an arrest to launching tear gas, as police did with demonstrators in 2020 or at the home in the International District last week. Dating back to early 2020, hundreds of cases where APD rolled out SWAT or used physical force haven’t yet been reviewed, the monitor’s May report states.

“These numbers indicate the next great crisis confronting APD: Use-of-force rates by APD personnel are so high that existing oversight systems will be unable to keep up with required oversight,” the report states. The previous report in November said the same thing, and it was still true 6 months later, independent monitor James Ginger wrote.

As a result, the federally mandated Use of Force Report from 2020 is still not finalized, still in the preliminary stage and “remains in question” by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

No info is available to show instances of force and violence from 2021 and this year.

The annual report is required each year as part of the Court Approved Settlement Agreement the city entered with the DOJ in 2014 after a federal review determined that a “significant amount of deadly and less lethal force was excessive and constituted an ongoing risk to the public.”

According to the consent decree, the annual Use of Force Reports should show the number of SWAT deployments, as well as the number of people injured during arrest and the amount of people who require hospital care, among other things.

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Since 2016, the city has posted annual reports on its website that document police callouts resulting in anything from minor injuries like bruises, to hospitalization and even death. 

The reports also give insight into what parts of the city police injure people — including where SWAT is often activated. 

According to the data in the preliminary 2020 report, the southeast part of the city that includes the International District has the most cases, including 141 instances where police officers used what they call level 2 force. This means injuries caused by officers shooting beanbag shotguns or pepper spray. Direct physical contact like leg sweeps and kicks as people are arrested are rolled into this category, too. 

This makes up 50% of all the incidents across Albuquerque, according to the data set that the police department has worked through. The majority of cases that are not finalized are described as level 2.

When taken up a notch — level 3 is described as actions that result in, “or could reasonably result in, serious physical injury, hospitalization or death” — APD reports 141 actions citywide. 

The southeast area of the city is also leading in that category with 33. 

Of course, this information is incomplete and that number could be even higher. Although the city does argue that overall use-of-force reports dropped since 2016, the monitor is concerned that the pattern of spotty reporting is common with APD.

“There have been instances in which APD personnel failed to report or investigate properly uses of force, which obviously impacted data integrity in the Use of Force Annual Reports,” Ginger wrote in the most recent report published May 11, 2022.

Until the city works through its backlog and finalizes its information, the Department of Justice considers APD to not be in compliance with this court-ordered requirement.

It’s unclear at this time when APD expects to fulfill that obligation or how much of the backlog it has investigated since May.

In 2021, the city and monitor agreed to contract with an outside group known as the External Force Investigative Team to help work through the case backlog. The group is composed of three teams of investigators and three administrators who are supposed to interview officers and command personnel at the onset of a review. They meet with city officials and police department heads, including Internal Affairs, at least once a week, according to Ginger. 

He said investigations are steadily improving, and the arrangement has created better conversations to streamline the amount of time it takes to complete reviews. 

But he worries that gains could be slow due to a lack of staffing and “cultural obstacles that persist” within APD.

This concern stems in part from the forecast about what happens when the External Force Investigative Team leaves the assignment and hands the keys back to APD’s Internal Affairs Division.

Ginger said the external team “creates a (temporary) environment of stringent accountability” that must be adopted when APD is back in the driver’s seat on their use-of-force investigations. And that, as always, starts at the top, as the external team tells the DOJ monitor, “basic supervision and command-level oversight needs to improve. Also, a general lack of urgency to complete tasks and implement measures that will benefit (Internal Affairs) is still prevalent.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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