Can the Albuquerque Police Department ever be reformed?

by Joshua Bowling, Searchlight New Mexico In the past decade, reforming the Albuquerque Police Department has cost nearly $40 million and generated 5,600 pages of oversight reports under the federal government’s effort to address the force’s excessive violence. But what does the city have to show for it? While the department touts an internal culture […]

by Joshua Bowling, Searchlight New Mexico

In the past decade, reforming the Albuquerque Police Department has cost nearly $40 million and generated 5,600 pages of oversight reports under the federal government’s effort to address the force’s excessive violence.

But what does the city have to show for it? While the department touts an internal culture change, mandatory body cameras and a slew of other reforms, its officers continue to kill residents at an outsized rate.

Even as APD has moved into compliance with nearly every reform mandated by a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree, nothing has rectified the department’s most glaring problem: the fact that it has more police shootings now than ever.

Though the federal government’s oversight appears to be on the verge of ending, Albuquerque police continue to kill people at a higher rate than any other police force in the country. In 2014, when the DOJ issued its consent decree, city police were involved in nine shootings. Last year, the department logged 13 shootings — a 44 percent increase in a city of 561,000 people.

“How the hell do we have more shootings than we did before they came here?” asked Shaun Willoughby, a patrol officer and president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association. “You absolutely did not get what you paid for.”

The man who has arguably benefitted the most from the consent decree is its independent monitor, James Ginger, who has collected more than $12 million since he took the job in early 2015, according to city invoices.

At the time, Ginger pledged to move to Albuquerque and open an office with a “hot-line and walk-in system” for people with “comments, compliments and concerns” regarding APD. Court documents show he estimated the reform effort would take four years and cost $4.5 million.

A Searchlight New Mexico investigation found that his lucrative post has lasted more than twice that long and cost the city nearly three times his original estimate. Meanwhile, Ginger has rarely been seen in Albuquerque and, according to his official resume, lives in South Carolina.

It’s hard to know exactly where he lives as details are hard to come by. Ginger has repeatedly refused to be interviewed for this story. Searchlight emailed him six times and visited his locked Albuquerque office twice within the course of a month to ask questions and request a sit-down meeting; he did not respond other than to acknowledge that his website was out of date and to explain why his office hours changed frequently. Calls to his cell phone were ignored; the staff in his Albuquerque office refused to talk when reached by phone and in person.

“I am completely occupied,” he wrote in a March email to Searchlight, referring to work on his next APD compliance report. “I am officially a ‘no comment.’”

His office only updated the reports on its website after Searchlight asked why the page was two years out of date.

The office itself is tucked away in a nondescript building just a few blocks south of the downtown Rail Runner train station, on 4th Street SW. It is locked from the inside, preventing anyone from entering without being granted access by a staffer. Its windows and doors are blacked out. The office hours displayed on its website, abqmonitor.org, change routinely, sometimes on a daily basis, making it difficult or impossible for citizens to know how or when to visit (in one of the only emailed comments he offered to Searchlight, Ginger said that no one has ever complained). The building’s scant signage identifies it as the Area Agency on Aging, with no visible indication that a police monitoring office is inside.

The ongoing work of monitoring the Albuquerque Police Department is occurring largely out of public view. Independent monitor James Ginger’s office sits just a stone’s throw from downtown Albuquerque in an unremarkable, beige strip mall. The only sign on the door identifies the building as the Area Agency on Aging. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

On multiple occasions, people who identified themselves only by their first names answered the locked door for a Searchlight reporter. They said they worked for Ginger and that he had given them orders not to speak to the press.

One of those people identified himself only as an assistant monitor named Eric; when asked how often Ginger was on the premises, he shut the door and locked it. The online staff directory for the office does not list anyone named Eric, and APD Chief Harold Medina said he has never known anyone by that name to work for Ginger.

Who is James Ginger?

Ginger, according to his resume, began his career in 1969 as an officer with the Evansville Police Department in Indiana. From there, he went into academia, teaching undergraduate criminal justice courses at Bluefield State College in West Virginia before briefly serving as director of the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville.

From 1986 to 1992, he worked as deputy director of the Police Foundation (now called the National Policing Institute), a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to advancing American policing. He then started his own company, Public Management Resources, which was tapped in 1997 to monitor the federal government’s first modern consent decree over a police department. It occurred in Pittsburgh.

In a 2014 letter to the city of Albuquerque and the DOJ, company officials claimed that Ginger “quite literally ‘wrote the book’” on monitoring consent decrees and developed “what became the standard practice in development of monitoring technologies and methodologies.”

The DOJ touted Ginger’s work in Pittsburgh when, in early 2000, it made him the independent monitor for a consent decree over the New Jersey State Police. In 2001, he consulted with the Los Angeles Police Department at the joint request of the LAPD and the DOJ.

A lethal history

Whether or not the consent decree has reduced the APD’s deadly use of force, the federal government has largely let go of the reins in recent years. In 2022, the DOJ announced it would allow Albuquerque to monitor much of its own progress. That was largely due to the department meeting a majority of DOJ goals: equipping officers with body cameras, providing more extensive training, tracking every instance in which they fired a weapon and prohibiting them from firing a gun from inside a moving vehicle.

But for every reform codified in department policy and for every city press conference praising the police force’s new compliance, police killings persisted.

Last year, APD killed 10.6 people per million residents — more than any other sizable police department in the nation, according to data tracked by the national nonprofit Mapping Police Violence.

In 2022, the department set a record for police shootings with 18, 10 of which were fatal. That year, a Searchlight analysis found, only the police departments in Los Angeles, New York and Houston killed more people than APD.

Law enforcement officials, including police leaders and district attorneys, say such figures are nuanced. They point to the acute dearth of mental health resources in New Mexico and, anecdotally, stories of people who draw guns on police officers as explanations for why the problem of police violence is so outsized locally.

Source: Mapping Police Violence

In the past four years, Albuquerque police repeatedly shot people who were suffering visible mental health crises. They shot 26-year-old Max Mitnik in the head during a “schizoaffective episode” in which he asked officers to fire their weapons at him; they shot and killed 52-year-old Valente Acosta-Bustillos who swung a shovel at officers and told them to shoot him; they shot and killed 33-year-old Collin Neztsosie while he was on his cell phone, pleading for help with a 911 dispatcher.

These grim numbers have led reform advocates, critics and law enforcement leaders themselves to question what it means to be “in compliance.”

“You can improve things on paper or comply with the terms of a consent decree and still have these things happening,” said UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, author of the 2023 book “Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable.”

“Albuquerque is a prime place to be asking the questions…about what impact consent decrees have,” Schwartz said. The city should be ground zero for the national conversation on police reform, she and others believe.

This is not to say that the consent decree has been without merit. The 2014 Court-Approved Settlement Agreement between the DOJ and Albuquerque laid out nearly 300 mandated reforms: Since its launch, APD has fulfilled hundreds of reform requirements, including overhauling scores of policies and training procedures.

The 2014 consent decree was meant to be “Policing 101,” according to the people who crafted it. It demanded that APD:

  • Rectify excessive use of force
  • Outfit specialized tactical and investigative units 
  • Train officers in crisis intervention
  • Have a process to investigate allegations of misconduct
  • Overhaul department policies and training
  • Boost staffing, management and supervision
  • Improve processes for recruitment and promotions
  • Establish mechanisms for officer assistance and support
  • Establish community engagement and oversight

Each mandated reform bears three benchmarks — primary compliance, secondary compliance and operational compliance — and once the APD reaches 100 percent compliance with all three benchmarks on every reform, the consent decree will draw to a close. As of Ginger’s latest progress report, filed in November, the department stands at 100 percent for primary compliance — meaning it has implemented policies and procedures in line with national best practices. According to Ginger’s reports, the department has also achieved 99 percent secondary compliance — meaning it has trained staff in those best practices — and 94 percent operational compliance, regarding its day-to-day implementation of the best practices.

Nobody’s ‘monitoring the monitor’

Once the consent decree was handed down, authorities had to find an objective third party to monitor APD’s progress in complying with the court-mandated reforms. Several people, including police authorities and reform advocates, recall being impressed with James Ginger’s credentials. He had overseen two previous consent decrees, including the first of its kind in Pittsburgh, in 1997 and the other in New Jersey, in 2000. He had also consulted with the Los Angeles Police Department, known for its chronic issues with excessive violence.

“He brought a reputation of being extremely rigorous, extremely detailed, unrelenting in holding the line on accountability,” recalled Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “I’m sure folks have things to say about Ginger that they never liked, but I felt like, by and large, he played that role. He was calling balls and strikes as he saw them, no matter whether APD liked it or not.”

While Ginger had a reputation for reform and a wealth of experience in policing and academia, he also became known for keeping a low profile and shying away from interactions with the greater community, other observers said.

“I may have seen him once or twice [in recent years],” said Damon Martinez, the former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, who helped shape and implement the consent decree before resigning in 2017. As Martinez recalled it, Ginger walked “on the other side of the street” so they wouldn’t cross paths, going out of his way to avoid him.

Former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Damon Martinez, left, and then-Mayor Richard Berry, second from left, listen as independent monitor James Ginger introduces his team in 2015. Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal

Million-dollar questions

In late 2015, Ginger addressed a packed room at an Albuquerque town hall meeting where residents peppered him with questions about his nearly $1.5 million salary. As one man in the crowd interrupted him with a question about accountability, Ginger called for security, according to news reports. Then, as things simmered down, he made a promise.

“This is top secret,” Ginger said, according to local NPR affiliate KUNM. “Come December, I’ll be living here, so no more flying back and forth.”

Such a move would have made sense. In Ginger’s original terms of employment, he’d estimated that the Albuquerque assignment would require 800 “on-site” days over four years.

Two years later, in 2017, a bipartisan minority on the Albuquerque City Council checked him on his math. When three city councilors ran the numbers, they found he’d spent an average of 42 days per year in Albuquerque — hardly the 200 days, as originally proposed.

“He rented an office here and he was never there. Nobody held him accountable,” former City Councilor Brad Winter recalled. “He was getting paid, and nobody was monitoring the monitor.”

The costs don’t stop with the $12 million in checks that Albuquerque has made out to Ginger. Medina, the APD chief, estimated that his department has spent an additional $25 million — on everything from body cameras to training — in efforts to comply with the consent decree. In 10 years, APD’s annual budget has ballooned from $163 million to nearly $268 million.

A police shooting sets reforms in motion

From the start, the demand for reform was sparked by the 2014 killing of James Boyd, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was camping in the Sandia Foothills. Boyd did not have a gun, a review of his belongings at a subsequent trial showed, but was instead carrying three knives, an empty can of mace, multiple Bibles and a handful of dollar bills.

In early 2014, hundreds marched in downtown Albuquerque to protest the police killing of James Boyd. Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal

Almost immediately, large protests erupted in downtown Albuquerque over the killing. The next month, the DOJ released a blistering 46-page report that accused the police department of employing an “overwhelming pattern of unconstitutional use of deadly force.” City officials signed the consent decree in the report’s wake, setting in motion the next decade of federal oversight. 

Some reforms took hold almost immediately after the report dropped. The Bernalillo County District Attorney charged Officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez with murder and manslaughter for killing Boyd. Body cameras were mandated for every sworn APD officer with a badge and a gun.

Internally, things were changing. The department disbanded its Repeat Offender Project, which some today liken to a police gang. The highly controversial unit focused on “career criminals” and used a hangman’s noose as its logo. Sandy, one of the officers who killed Boyd, was a member of the ROP unit.

The Albuquerque Police Department’s Repeat Offender Project disbanded in the wake of the consent decree. Years before, it was scrutinized for using a hangman’s noose as its insignia. Courtesy Albuquerque Journal

Department leaders say the consent decree brought about a culture change as well. Issues can’t be swept under the rug anymore, they say, because there are more eyes than ever on police conduct in Albuquerque.

“We terminate more people than ever before,” Medina, the police chief, said in an interview. “These things have always happened. They were just dealt with differently.”

Reform advocates, for their part, contend that such a “culture change” has not been as far-reaching as the department claims. In recent months, an FBI investigation into the department spilled into public view. Officers were investigated for allegedly taking bribes to get DWI cases dismissed from court. The ongoing scandal has led to the resignation of five officers to date.

From Rodney King to James Boyd

In the history of American policing, consent decrees are a relatively new invention.

The need for enforceable reform became clear in early 1991 as the nation watched televised footage of Los Angeles police officers brutally beating Rodney King, an unarmed Black man whom they accused of driving while intoxicated. If the LAPD couldn’t reform itself, members of Congress announced they’d draft legislation to let the DOJ step in and order reforms.

Lawmakers inserted two small paragraphs, known as Section 14141, into the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. The new provision made it illegal for law enforcement officers to engage in a “pattern or practice” that deprived people of their constitutional rights, privileges or immunities. If a police department violated the provision, the U.S. Attorney General could intervene and right the ship.

In 1997, the DOJ found its first test case in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, a department that was criticized for unlawful traffic stops and police violence.

In some ways, launching the Pittsburgh decree was a symbolic move: The city’s police union is the oldest in the nation. After five years of federal oversight, the department improved its civilian complaint system and adopted one of the nation’s first “early warning” systems, letting supervisors track which officers exhibited problematic behavior in the field.

Since then, consent decrees have ebbed and flowed with the political tides. George W. Bush campaigned on a promise, which he kept, not to institute a single consent decree: The DOJ was unnecessarily “second-guessing” local law enforcement agencies, he said in 2000.

Barack Obama’s administration, on the other hand, dispatched DOJ investigators across the country at unprecedented levels. Many of the now-active decrees, including Albuquerque’s, date back to his administration.

Perhaps the most visible differences between the early consent decrees and today’s are found in the documents themselves. Pittsburgh’s 1997 decree was a mere 18 pages long; Albuquerque’s sprawls over more than 100 pages.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina

Across the country, 13 other municipal police departments or county sheriff’s offices — including in Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore — are currently working under consent decrees to address police abuses, lack of training and deficient mental health care in jails, among other issues.

Experts believe the consent decree is one of the government’s best tools to reform problematic police departments. But they’re not a permanent fix.

“The problem with police departments is that you are not dealing with one bad apple or a couple of bad apples. They are problems of systems,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has studied the history of consent decrees.

In Pittsburgh, he said, “there did seem to be real promise of change. And some things did, in fact, change. But it didn’t stick in the long run.”

‘Life after DOJ’

If APD continues to shoot and kill record numbers of civilians while it stands at near-total compliance, what will “life after DOJ,” as Medina put it, look like?

Medina and Simonson of the ACLU have both expressed a desire to retain some form of oversight after the consent decree ends. Medina also envisions a new training academy for internal affairs investigators.

“I want to build something that’s going to outlast me,” Medina, who plans to retire in late 2025, told Searchlight. The department, he said, needs to be “vigilant” about maintaining what it’s achieved.

To reform advocates like Simonson, though, such progress has been too little too late. “The fact that we’ve had to invest so much money in Albuquerque for such limited results is in large part a consequence of what policing is in this country,” he said. “We know what some of the ingredients are, but we don’t really have the recipe yet to fully bake a constitutional, professional and community-safe police force.”

Both see a need to stop sending armed officers to the scenes of 911 calls for mental health crises. In 2020, Albuquerque launched a formal push to do just this, though responders and families of police violence victims have criticized the rollout.

The next independent monitor’s report, which will provide updated numbers on APD’s compliance levels, is expected to be published in the coming months. Medina aspires to have the consent decree wrapped up by the end of 2025.

Ginger’s contract, meanwhile, is set to expire at the end of June. It will likely be renewed and net him another million if the effort follows Medina’s timetable.

This article first appeared on Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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