Keller’s been particularly proactive about reform at the city police department, a thing that was federally mandated a scant three years ago. Anyone with basic reading skills and a nominal interest in history can find out why our local police force had to come under federal guidance. It’s all very clear and the process used to determine that a culture of excessive force existed and needed to be excised from the department was markedly fair; the decision to require federal oversight came after an extensive investigation by law enforcement professionals from the United States Justice Department.
That is why it is concerning that comments made by Keller at the public swearing-in ceremony of new interim police were characterized by officials at the police union as a misstep, a term used to great and unfair effect the next morning over at the local daily.
On behalf of the city, Mayor Keller apologized to citizens for the mess over at APD, from a continuing crime wave to a still extant culture of excessive force that resulted in federal intervention.
Keller’s words were measured and professional. He said, “I’m a believer in community policing, and that includes one of the pillars of community policing, which is about truthfulness with the public. And in that spirit, I want to start by offering an apology on behalf of City Hall to our community. Our community deserves an apology for its historical tone at the top of the department and a culture of excessive force that has hurt our community.
“I also want to tell the victims of families who have been hurt by unnecessary use of force that I am sorry, and that we are sorry as your city government. We will work every day to restore trust in our community.
“Secondly, we also need to apologize for our skyrocketing crime rates. I have heard from hundreds of folks who don’t feel safe and who worry about their families every day. And I want to acknowledge to all the victims of crime in this city and to all the families who have fallen victim to crime that we have let you down in many ways. Public safety is a critical function of government, and we must do better and it starts with owning up to that today.”
This sort of conciliatory language, backed by actions like choosing a top-flight professional to lead the department and the immediate restructuring of the command structure at APD are just what the city needs to heal, to begin to trust and work with law enforcement in remaking Albuquerque into a safe and sane place to live and work.
In response, the head of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, Shaun Willoughby replied, “We just didn’t think it was an appropriate way to move forward by ripping open an old wound,” Willoughby, seemed to attempt to discredit the idea of reform when he continued, “Most police officers don’t feel they have anything to apologize for. … You can’t apologize to a criminal element that forced a police officer to use force against them.”
The union’s reaction is reminiscent of a thing called revisionism. That’s the thing where authorities deny or ignore the past, coloring it, spinning it as if it has no more relevance than, say, a criminal flight of fancy. We love and respect our city’s police force, but they should be under no illusions about what the power they wield is capable of creating—or destroying.
Of course individual police officers—the ones on duty tonight protecting the citizens of Duke City, their office mates in the dispatch room, heck anyone who dons an Albuquerque city police uniform—don’t have to apologize for what their predecessors wrought, heck we like them just fine! But, they should be required to have knowledge of the past and its poor outcome.
Officer’s awareness should extend to understanding the problem of police brutality—how it manifests and persists in a public service culture and how to avoid it all together. Recruits should understand that excessive force is wrong and will not be tolerated. Representatives of the police should be willing to discourse on the course of events that resulted in mandated federal oversight without feeling that they are being demonized; they are the future of the city, after all.
The implementation and maintenance of that shameful culture of excessive force festered for years, damaged the perception citizens in this town have of the police force as well as causing more than a few unnecessary deaths. It is the responsibility of city government to correct that problem. More importantly, it is the responsibility of local law enforcement to be part of the communities they serve and to work within values defined by those communities, not as a force that is removed from accountability due to warrior status, above reproach and beyond much-needed self-reflection.