Albuquerque police have used deadly force more often than necessary, resulting in a series of unjustified fatal shootings by officers, according to a damning report released Thursday by the U.S. Justice Department.
Acting Assistant Atty. Gen. Jocelyn Samuels said the Albuquerque Police Department needed a "systematic change" to address a long-ingrained culture of using deadly force — a culture the report called indifferent to operating within constitutional guidelines.
"This is no longer an acceptable way to proceed," Samuels said.
Speaking to a crowded room of reporters and community leaders in a televised news conference from Albuquerque, Samuel listed a number of recommended reforms, such as stronger oversight of the department and better police training.
Federal officials stopped short of calling for a monitor to oversee the Police Department, saying such a move would depend on how receptive the department was to making the changes proposed.
The report, in the form of a 46-page letter to Mayor Richard J. Berry, described a department that operated with little accountability to the public, often failing to properly report, investigate and discipline excessive-force cases.
"For too long, Albuquerque officers have faced little scrutiny from their superiors in carrying out this fundamental responsibility," the letter says. "Despite the efforts of many committed individuals, external oversight is broken and has allowed the department to remain unaccountable to the communities it serves. Based on our investigation, we find that the department engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force during the course of arrests and other detentions in violation of the Fourth Amendment."
Berry, who had urged the Justice Department to expedite its investigation, said that "as difficult as the findings are," implementing reforms was possible.
"Today marks a very important milestone for APD and our city," Berry said in a statement. "Today we all know a lot more about where our department is and where we need to go than we knew yesterday, or last week, or last year."
The Justice Department's letter comes on the heels of a string of fatal shootings by officers, including the death March 16 of a homeless and mentally ill man, James "Abba" Boyd, who was illegally camping in the Sandia Mountains. Boyd had been acting erratically and got into a confrontation with officers before he was shot.
A video of the shooting that surfaced last month touched off mass protests and unrest in the desert city of 550,000 residents. The video also prompted calls for better police training, especially on how to deal with the mentally ill.
Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot 37 people, 23 of them fatally. The shootings prompted the Justice Department to open its investigation.
Last week, Berry had called Boyd's death a "game changer," and introduced a raft of proposed "sweeping changes" to be implemented by Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden Jr., who has been in his post for about a month.
However, Berry stopped short of saying there was a cultural problem in the agency and did not address that issue Thursday.
Tension between police and parts of the community has been brewing for years, and Boyd's death was not an isolated incident, experts and community leaders have said.
The Justice Department letter, while acknowledging the dangers and demands of police work, said officers "too often use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner in their use of firearms. To illustrate, of the 20 officer-involved shootings resulting in fatalities from 2009 to 2012, we concluded that a majority of these shootings were unconstitutional."
The federal investigators found that Albuquerque officers too often used lethal force when there was no imminent threat of death or seriously bodily harm to themselves, other officers or other people. The letter did not address the possibility of criminal charges in connection with any incidents described in the report.
Another key finding is that a significant amount of use-of-force cases involved people with mental illness or in crisis situations.
Samuels said federal officials planned to meet with city leaders, community members and police union officials, among others, to discuss the recommendations and come up with a plan of action.