Justice Department officials announced Tuesday that they have opened an investigation into whether Albuquerque police used “unreasonable deadly force” against civilians.
The announcement came after a series of controversial officer-involved shootings and abuse cases in New Mexico's largest city that triggered protests, lawsuits and demands for a police department overhaul. City officials had previously rejected appeals for a Justice Department review, but agreed to cooperate after federal officials began a preliminary review last year.
Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez spoke about the inquiry Tuesday at the office of the U.S. attorney for New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he was joined by Mayor Richard Berry and Police Chief Ray Schultz, who had received a letter earlier in the day notifying them of the investigation.
Perez did not say how long the federal inquiry will last, but stressed that the investigation is civil, not criminal, and that it will be “thorough, fair and independent.” He noted that it is the 14th police reform case being handled by the department under a federal law passed in 1994 in the wake of the Los Angeles riots.
“This independent review is critical to ensuring and preserving trust between a police department and the community it serves,” Perez said. “Community trust is among the most important currency an officer has.... Our goal is not simply to fix the blame, but rather to identify and fix problems, if any are identified, in connection with use of force, and to work collaboratively with you and the entire community to build a department everyone is proud of.”
Civil rights advocates praised the federal intervention.
“It’s a great achievement for us. We welcome them and we’ve been trying to get them for over a year,” said Jewel Hall, president of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center Task Force on Social Justice for Public Safety in Albuquerque, which has rallied and posted online videos about the shootings.
Albuquerque police have reported 23 officer-involved shootings — 17 of them fatal — since 2010, according to a spokeswoman for the mayor. There were also officer-involved attacks on civilians that sparked outrage, including some caught on video.
One video showed officers belly bumping to celebrate after beating a suspected car thief. Another showed an officer illegally entering an apartment, using a stun gun on a suspect, then punching another who had already surrendered.
After an Albuquerque detective shot and killed a man last year, he was caught listing his occupation as “human waste disposal” on his Facebook page.
Residents were particularly outraged that police shot some of the victims in the back while they were handcuffed or fleeing, Hall said.
“Those we really have concern about. How could they be justified? The department has justified all of them,” Hall said.
She noted that many of the shooting victims were young Latino men, while many of the officers involved were white.
“We see some of what’s been happening in the police department as a culture” of insensitivity to minorities, Hall said. “We have to take their word that they’re committed to improve.”
Schultz said at the news conference that police will cooperate with the investigation.
“Our officers are of the highest quality, and receive excellent training. However, we know that we are not always perfect and that there is always room for improvement,” he said in a statement released afterward. “The Albuquerque Police Department has demonstrated our commitment to the city and to our citizens. We look forward to working with the [Justice Department] investigative team and its panel of experts and identifying any additional steps that we can take to improve our department and our community.”
Schultz and the mayor stressed that local police have already made improvements, and the mayor added that Justice Department officials have not identified any “urgent issues.”
“I believe in our police officers and in this police department. The community should as well,” Berry said in a Tuesday statement. “We will strive to ensure that any proposed recommendations stemming from this investigation are pragmatic, and that changes in policy and procedure will have the potential for measurable results and will consider the well-being of our citizens and officers.”
The Albuquerque Journal, which first investigated and reported the federal probe, has posted an online timeline of officer-involved shootings and other incidents related to the investigation.