The pattern and practice of excessive force cases and shootings by the Albuquerque Police Department are dominating everyday news coverage in New Mexico.
But this isn’t the first time Albuquerque’s police have come under fire for abuses of force, and not the first time the public has called for increased accountability and civilian oversight of the department.
The thing is, for longtime Albuquerque inhabitants, this probably all sounds familiar. Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, the city went through a similar scandal. I wrote about it in my book.
In 1998 the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico brought in Jerry Galvin to take over the police department after a series of questionable shootings and SWAT incidents moved the city to commission an outside investigation…
The city brought in Sam Walker, a well-regarded criminologist at the University of Nebraska, to evaluate the police department’s use of lethal force. Walker was astonished by what he found.
“The rate of police killings was just off the charts,” Walker told the Times. The city’s SWAT team, he said, “had an organizational structure that led them to escalate situations upward rather than de-escalating.”
The city then brought in Galvin, who immediately disbanded the SWAT team, toned down the militarism, and implemented community policing policies. Galvin told the Times, “If cops have a mindset that the goal is to take out a citizen, it will happen.”
But the reform-minded Galvin didn’t last long. He was an outsider, and clashed with the city’s higher-ranking career cops.
Read more: Albuquerque’s long history of police abuse, cover-up and scandal, Washington Post, April 14, 2014
Attempts at reform in the late-1990’s included the creation of the Police Oversight Commission, a citizen panel designed to hear citizen complaints about alleged police misconduct. But it was doomed from the start as police union leaders made big bucks in city overtime defending officers accused of misconduct and organizing members to undermined transparency and accountability that could have prevented our current crisis.
More than a decade later, the US Department of Justice slams (report here) the city for not giving the Police Oversight Commission the teeth to do it’s job and specifically names the city’s police union as limiting the commission’s ability to conduct effective oversight. Now, three POC members have quit citing the body’s ineffectiveness.
Police union “stonewalls” public oversight commission
More than three years after the Police Oversight Commission was established, the Albuquerque Journal called the process underwhelming and members said it was in danger of becoming “irrelevant.” Why?
Because the leader of the police union told them not to participate.
From the Albuquerque Journal (2001):
One thing is certain when it comes to Police Oversight Commission hearings on citizen complaints against Albuquerque police officers: The street cops won’t show up…
No officer named in a citizen complaint has ever shown up for a hearing during the commission’s 2 1/2 years of existence…
Former commission member Jennie Lusk said the commission is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
“The commission has been marginalized,” she said. “We still have a department that has no public accountability… commission Chairman Hart Guenther said the union frowns on its members appearing before the commission.
“So, I would say yes, that we have been stonewalled.”
-“Board Has Little Say Over APD,” Albuquerque Journal, June 3, 2001
Paid to make public accountability “irrelevant”
As police union president, Pacheco made big bucks fighting transparency and oversight in a department accused of misconduct and abuse. In his first year as union president, he almost doubled his salary earning $37,917 in overtime, making him the third highest paid officer that year. (source: ABQ Journal, “Officers taking home thousands in overtime pay,” Mar. 8, 1998)
That fight was still brewing more than a year after the Albuquerque Journal editorialized against Pacheco’s push against reform saying the union-led opposition he began was trying to “frustrate attempts to forge stronger links of accountability to civilian authority”:
No officer named in a complaint has ever appeared before the commission…
Former commissioner Jennie Lusk says, “We still have a department that has no public accountability” and a commission that is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Officers should be expected to appear at all hearings involving their work, whether to testify against a defendant or to defend themselves against a complaint. It’s part of the job.
-“Police oversight still underwhelms,” Editorial, Albuquerque Journal, June 5, 2001
In response, Pacheco penned a letter to the editor explaining why he was encouraging officers accused of abuse and misconduct to buck the civilian oversight process so long as citizens could testify, the meetings were broadcast publicly and so long as it included citizens with ties to civil rights organizations:
I personally don’t blame officers for not appearing before the POC, because officers are considered guilty until proven innocent…
…the POC should be impartial. It is not. The makeup of the POC will be flawed as long as they have commissioners sitting on the POC representing special interest groups (i.e. the American Civil Liberties Union).
-“Police doing well despite commission,” Paul Pacheco, Albuquerque Journal, July 3, 2001
Notably, Pacheco refused any civilian oversight from civil rights advocates like the ACLU. Some readers will note that Mayor RJ Berry appointed Scott Greenwood, a national board member of the ACLU, as one of two men to oversee City Hall’s role in APD reform.
Berry said he liked the pair’s track record.
“I’m excited to have these gentleman on the team,” the mayor said. “I think this outside perspective is going to be great.”
It turns out, that outside perspective was great 15 years ago, too.
‘Plumbers and electricians’ aren’t smart enough to evaluate Pacheco
Pacheco even noted that he was opposed to having officers tape record citizen encounters. That eventually became policy over his objection and tape recorders became video cameras like those used to capture the shooting of James Boyd, a mentally ill camper, on March 16, 2014.
From the Albuquerque Journal:
APD officers have received numerous invitations from the commission to testify when a resident makes a complaint against the officers, but the officers have refused them all…
Union President and APD Detective Paul Pacheco said officers wouldn’t testify. “Essentially, there is no benefit for officers to testify before the POC,” Pacheco said. “It’s a no-win for us.”…
“I don’t see doctors being evaluated by plumbers or lawyers by electricians,” Pacheco said. “So why are police officers being evaluated by people with little or no knowledge of police work?”
-“Police are urged to testify in complaint cases,” Albuquerque Journal, 10/11/2002, p. B1
Paul Pacheco now serves as a state representative from District 23 representing Corrales, Rio Rancho and northern Bernalillo County. His campaign for office highlighted his record as a police officer and union leader as an example of the type of public service he believed in. You can contact him here.
Read Pacheco’s full letter to the editor opposing civilian oversight of police below the break.
Albuquerque Journal, Letters to the Editor, July 3, 2001, Page A7:
Police Doing Well Despite Commission
AS PRESIDENT of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, I take great issue with the vast majority of the editorial entitled “Police Oversight Still Underwhelms.”
The Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association has not in anyway tried to “frustrate attempts to forge stronger links of accountability to civilian authority.” Why would the association need to do so, when the Albuquerque Police Department and the officers who comprise it are highly respected nationwide as one of the most professional, respectable and highly trained police departments in the country? Thus, the explanation of why our officers are continually sought after by other departments across the county for their expertise in training.
Further, the officers comprising this department do not have a problem being held accountable for their actions and taking responsibility for any mistakes that may occur. The association is merely trying to make sure that any accountability is done in a fair manner and that complete due process is afforded to all officers.
In the opinion of the association there are several problems with the Police Oversight Commission.
*First, it is impossible for a civilian to fully understand a police officer or know how he or she might respond because they have absolutely no experience or training in law enforcement. In fact, the POC has, on more than one occasion, been offered an opportunity to attend the civilian version of the Albuquerque Police Academy in order to gain a better understanding of what Albuquerque police officers face on a daily basis and have refused to do so. It might interest you to know that the original ordinance required this type of training to be a member of the POC. The ordinance was amended to delete this requirement. Wonder why?
*Second, the POC meetings are a matter of public record and are televised. Why is this a problem you may ask? It means that civilians can come before the POC for any reason whether real or imagined and make up stories; and they can use this opportunity to defame, slander or embarrass the police officers.
I personally don’t blame officers for not appearing before the POC, because officers are considered guilty until proven innocent. An officer could suffer considerably, while the complainant could lie or make up false allegations without being held accountable for anything he or she said.
*Third, the POC should be impartial. It is not. The makeup of the POC will be flawed as long as they have commissioners sitting on the POC representing special interest groups (i.e. the American Civil Liberties Union).
We will never have a fair and impartial way of evaluating police conduct with the current make-up of this POC. Even after these problems have been pointed out, the independent review officer, former public defender Ann Steinmetz, in her yearly report stated the citizens of Albuquerque should be proud of the police department and their officers.
Even with all these problems and the unfair rules, the department still gets a great review makes you wonder how really good the department is, doesn’t it?
DETECTIVE PAUL PACHECO
Police Officers’ Association