In Albuquerque, an uproar over shootings by police
ALBUQUERQUE — Mike Gomez was in Las Vegas on business last May when an early-morning phone call delivered terrible news: His son Alan had been shot dead by an Albuquerque police marksman.
The 22-year-old construction worker had been acting erratically while in the throes of drug-induced hallucinations, said police. They mistakenly believed he had a gun and was holding two people hostage.
The shooting was one of 23 officer-involved shootings, 17 of them fatal, since January 2010, a string that has given Albuquerque one of the highest police shooting rates in the country. Critics charge the Police Department is out of control and are calling for the police chief to step down.
Wrongful-death lawsuits have mounted. In July 2011, the city agreed to pay $950,000 to the family of Roderick Jones, an unarmed security guard who in 2009 was shot in the back by an officer. That officer was later fired.
In March, officers fatally shot two suspects, and the Albuquerque Journal disclosed that the police union had been giving officers involved in shootings up to $500 so they could leave town amid the intense media coverage that typically follows an incident.
Gomez and other relatives of police shooting victims called the payments a “bounty” for killing civilians. “That’s like a reward system,” said Gomez, who is among those suing the department. “When they give them a $500 check, they can do anything with it — buy beer, buy a TV.”
Mayor Richard Berry and Police Chief Ray Schultz disavowed the practice, which made national headlines, and two union leaders resigned. Interim police union president Greg Weber said that from now on, officers would simply be reimbursed for their travel expenses.
“It was never about paying somebody to shoot a citizen,” he said. “It was about supporting the officer in their time of need.”
The department’s reputation took another hit last year when it was found that a detective who had shot a man during a traffic stop had listed his occupation on his Facebook page as “human waste disposal,” while another detective had posted politically and racially charged remarks on his Twitter and MySpace pages.
Relatives like Gomez and civil rights groups, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, have staged rallies and protested at City Council meetings while calling for the Justice Department to launch a civil rights investigation.
Schultz, who has led the department since 2005, said that episodes of officer-on-citizen violence “seem to go in cycles,” and that such incidents appeared to be on the rise nationally, due in part to a growing number of people with untreated mental health problems.
TheWashington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, meanwhile, reviewed the department’s practices and made nearly two dozen recommendations, most of which have been implemented, according to Schultz.
Where recruits once needed only high school diplomas, they now must have 60 hours of college credit, he says, plus the police academy is de-emphasizing its “paramilitary” culture.
Uniformed officers now carry Tasers, Schultz says, and all have lapel-mounted video cameras to record citizen encounters. Dispatchers and officers are taught how to identify people with signs of mental illness, and supervisors are automatically routed to scenes where someone is reported to have a weapon.
Schultz acknowledges the shootings have caused family members pain and drawn unflattering attention to the department. “Our goal has always been to try to minimize that force situation,” he says. “A lot of people are watching us to see how successful we are.”
Haederle writes for The Times.