Not many years ago Albuquerque's cops had a reputation rivaling Los Angeles' for biased, prejudiced treatment of minorities. In that unenlightened, pre-Citizen Police Oversight Commission era, our city's finest actually seemed proud of the notoriety their get-tough tactics had earned.
Hey, you didn't hear APD complaining about all those brutal take down scenes shown on “Cops” reruns that starred Albuquerque patrolmen; it seems they liked that image.
But more recently, starting when community policing became the favorite topic at City Hall a few years back, our police department seemed to be trying to turn over a new leaf. And after the Oversight Commission got off the ground, it seemed like we were getting far more "Good Cop" manifestations than "Bad Cop" apparitions.
Oh, sure, Vecinos Unidos and the ACLU kept up their non-stop complaining about constitutional rights violations and our "suicide by cop" incidents continued to mount in distressing numbers, but overall the department's reputation for biased treatment of ethnic minorities softened considerably.
It hurts that, in a city where whites are in the statistical minority, APD has never managed to recruit, train and retain enough minority policemen and women to come close to reflecting in the ranks of law enforcement a proportion of minorities roughly similar to what they comprise in the general population.
Still, there are many Hispanic cops in APD, a few African Americans and a few Native Americans. Not enough, certainly, but I'll bet a higher percentage than most large cities employ.
So I was surprised to read the results of a courageous survey into "Biased-Based Policing" recently carried out by the New Mexico Human Rights Coalition.
It was referenced in a study of the issue done by the City's Human Rights Office. One would have hoped APD's treatment of minorities would have scored much better than it did.
I use the term courageous for the survey because let's be honest: APD does not like scrutiny or criticism and there is plenty of both of those in the survey's findings. It goes without saying that our law enforcement agency will most likely either reject the findings or completely ignore the survey. At most, our police spokesmen will blithely explain them away.
The real response to watch for, however, will not come from the cops, but from Mayor Chavez.
The survey was ostensibly conducted to provide sound information for the use of the mayor's Racial Profiling Task Force—if that task force ever gets created. Until that happens, the survey can still provide an illuminating peek at our community's underbelly for those curious about disturbing evidence of bias in the way our police handle themselves.
Shortly after taking office, while the reverberations and fallout from the events of 9-11 were still wobbling knees and flinching moral compasses all over America, Mayor Chavez announced his intention to name a task force on racial profiling. He wanted to reassure the citizenry that just because we had been attacked brutally, it didn't mean we had to give up all our civil rights and liberties.
He announced that decision on Jan. 30, 2002. We've now completed the second anniversary of that announcement and there is still no such task force.
Now, though, there is a completed study about the issue, along with a survey of 200 community informants on the topic sitting on the shelf, patiently awaiting the mayor's appointments.
The study's findings are couched in cautious language, but they are quite clear in the picture they paint of how Albuquerqueans see our police force. It isn't pretty. The study shows 60 percent of those surveyed indicated that they believe racial and ethnic bias by APD officers is a serious problem, and only 6 percent said they didn't think such bias existed at all.
More significantly, a full 35 percent of those polled said they themselves had experienced racial profiling and biased policing by APD. They included unprovoked traffic stops, verbal and even physical abuse and the use of negative slurs and terms by policemen.
When asked if they personally knew someone else who'd been on the receiving end of such treatment here, the percentage jumped to 80 percent. Clearly, what we find in this report goes far beyond the occasional lapse in judgment or overheated, impatient response to provocation by criminals resisting arrest. We may actually have symptoms of a much more serious problem.
We won't know for sure, of course, until we take a closer look. If we wait for APD to throw itself on the examination table all on its own, I'm afraid we will have a very long wait. That just won't happen. It's going to take a mayor who is willing to bite the bullet and finish what he started two years ago.
This will not make Marty Chavez real popular with APD. There are cynics who might suggest that's why the task force charged with examining the problem has never gotten off the drawing board. But the mayor has a golden opportunity here to exercise genuine leadership on what looks like a festering problem in our pluralistic community. How he responds will say a great deal about his chances for re-election.
(Copies of the study on "Bias-Based Policing" are available at the Albuquerque Human Rights Office, 924-3380.)