On April 10, 2014, the office of the assistant attorney general wrote the mayor of this town, Richard Berry. Ex Cathedra, the voice of the letter told a tale that includes the following language, right up front: “Based on our investigation, we have reasonable cause to believe that APD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Section 14141 …”
The days that followed the announcement only seemed to confirm the worst. On April 21, an alleged petty criminal, a teenager named Mary Hawkes, was killed in an encounter with patrolman Jeremy Dear. The controversial shooting kept awareness of APD’s problems highly visible and in Jan. 2015, the DOJ named Dr. James R. Ginger to lead and oversee the mandated APD reform efforts.
It’s easy to forget about all those long-ago details (heck it’s only been four years folks and who in the hell remembers what they were doing that long ago!) and in the meantime, APD-involved shootings have declined, even as the homicide rate in town has risen. It would be keen to believe—especially during the holiday season when our culture’s highest hopes center around the myth of the eternal return—that just less than three years after that important appointment, substantive progress has been made in reestablishing a fair and grounded institution.
In idealistic terms, the reformed APD should by now be reformed and regrown, carefully and kindly bent toward helping citizens solve a myriad of problems from murder to domestic disturbances without fear of further civil rights violations.
But that’s not how it turned out during the Berry administration. A series of missteps, a tendency to depend on the deeply entrenched status quo at APD and stern refusal to act with contrition has—until recent electoral developments changed the civic environment—marked the reform efforts as chaotic, confusing and ineffective.
The election of a new, progressive municipal administration may just be what APD needs to regain its crime-fighting mojo and to establish itself as an institution devoted to serving and protecting this city.
On Tuesday morning, Dec. 5, Michael James Geier will officially become Albuquerque’s new interim police chief. Geier is a reform-minded police officer from inside the local ranks; Keller intends to preserve and strengthen his positive relationship—which resulted in an important election endorsement—with the local police and firefighters unions. These sorts of positive relationships, difficult to maintain in the realpolitk world of local governance, bring the hope for reform into the realm of reality.
Geier brings more than 20 years experience to a difficult job that has seemingly grown even more unmanageable during the last half of this year. Geier’s crime-fighting and administrative résumés are impeccable and it is hoped he and his team—Eric Garcia, Rogelio Banez and Harold John Medina—can bring some light to a situation that has been effectively been rendered foggy by the mists of time.
It was only a couple weeks ago, after all, that US District Judge Robert Brack struck a critical but necessary note in the ongoing reform controversy. In his 17-page opinion, found that the surreptitious recording of Ginger’s activities by high ranking APD officials came close to obstruction, noting that the decision to tape the DOJ overseer was, in and of itself “unacceptable.”
It’s clear that certain members of the APD hierarchy saw Ginger’s efforts to be an existential threat. Former city attorney Jessica Hernandez repeatedly expressed frustration with Ginger regarding the department’s involvement in the DOJ process, particularly at meetings where Ginger’s reform efforts were discussed.
Along the way it seems, Hernandez’ handlers decided, in almost a Trump-like fashion, that they needed some dirt on the federal reformer. The institutional belief that the federal monitor “had an ax to grind” with regard to his job investigating and holding accountable a municipal organization that demonstrated abusive, even murderous, policies for a number of years is as baffling as it is ludicrous.
But now the air is clearing. Gorden Eden is no longer at APD. City Attorney Jessica Hernandez has gone somewhere else, too. And our new interim police chief—whom Keller says can apply to the national level search for a permanent placement—is an ace. He’s a guy the mayor says “is committed to better crime fighting, accountability in APD, and to restoring trust and community policing. In the midst of the unacceptable crime epidemic in our city and the ongoing need for reform, I'm grateful to share that our safety will be in the hands of a chief with a rare combination of qualities."
Let’s hope that Geier can look past departmental loyalties, ideological boundaries and learn from the tragic, bloody and unkempt past as he pursues Keller’s vision of community policing and justice for all.
As Judge Brack noted in his admonitions to the city’s leadership, “Let’s hit the reset button. … These games aren’t acceptable. The officers … and the citizens deserve better.”