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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels at the Press Conference to Announce the Albuquerque Police Department Investigative Findings
Albuquerque, N.M. ~ Thursday, April 10, 2014

Good morning and thank you all for joining us.  Thank you, Damon, for your work in Albuquerque and across New Mexico.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office has been an important partner in enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and we thank you for your leadership.  We are here this morning to announce the results of the Department of Justice’s pattern or practice investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department. 

 

Our team of attorneys and staff from both the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been working hard to complete a thorough and independent review of the Albuquerque Police Department and its use of force.  When we opened this investigation in late 2012, we set out to uncover the facts and to follow them wherever they took us.  I am here today to report that we have done just that.  Since opening the investigation, the team has conducted an exhaustive review of the Albuquerque Police Department to determine not only whether a pattern or practice of excessive force exists, but also to diagnose the causes and factors contributing to that pattern or practice. 

 

We conducted hundreds of witness interviews, including officers, city officials, and community members who have been affected by officers’ use of force.  We examined thousands of pages of documents, including incident reports, internal investigations, shooting files, and external oversight and task force reports.  We conducted four well-attended community meetings across the city to share information about our investigation and to listen to the community’s concerns.  We conducted numerous ride-alongs with officers in the field and held exit briefings with Albuquerque Police leadership and the City Attorney’s Office.  We heard from hundreds of community members through our community email address and a toll-free hotline we established to allow anyone with relevant information to share it with us wherever they were.

 

We engaged expert police consultants to assist in our evaluation. 

 

This investigation was not an easy task, but through all of these efforts, we made certain to gather the facts and apply the law to the facts to reach our conclusions. 

 

We thank the mayor and the department for their cooperation throughout the investigation.

 

We have determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Albuquerque Police Department is engaging in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including the use of unreasonable deadly force.  This conduct violates the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a powerful civil rights law that has allowed us to reform troubled police departments across the country, large and small, including police agencies in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New Jersey, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.   We continue to work with other departments across the country, including Portland, Oregon; Seattle; New Orleans; and Puerto Rico.

 

In brief, we found that the Albuquerque Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of violating residents’ Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force during police encounters.

 

Specifically we found that:

 

·          Officers use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner.  Our investigation looked at officer-involved shootings that resulted in fatalities from 2009 to 2012 and found that a majority of them were unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  We found that officers used deadly force against people who did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious harm to officers or others, and against people who posed a threat only to themselves.  In fact, sometimes it was the conduct of the officers themselves that heightened the danger and escalated the need to use force.

 

·          We found that officers use other types of less lethal force, especially electronic control weapons, or Tasers, in an unconstitutional manner.  Our investigation looked beyond just the use of deadly force and found a significant number of improper uses of force in our review of over 200 force reports generated between 2009 and early 2013.  We found that officers routinely fired their Tasers, which discharge 50,000 volts of electricity, against people who were passively resisting and non-threatening or who were unable to comply with orders due to their mental state.  Indeed, we found that encounters between police officers and persons with mental illness or in crisis too frequently resulted in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary.

 

Our investigation revealed that the causes of these patterns or practices were systemic and resulted from organizational deficiencies.  Chief among these deficiencies is the department’s failure to implement an objective and rigorous internal accountability system.  Improper force incidents were not properly investigated, documented, or addressed with corrective measures.  These deficiencies, combined with inconsistent implementation of policies, inadequate training, and a broken civilian oversight process contribute to the use of excessive force. 

 

Our findings are set out in writing in a letter that we shared with Mayor Berry, Chief Eden, and other city officials this morning.  That letter is now posted on the Civil Rights Division’s webpage and is available to the public.  We have also provided hard copies here.  

 

I want to pause for a moment now to speak to two important groups that are affected most directly by our findings. 

 

To members of the community who have shown a tremendous interest in our investigation, we thank you for your partnership and support.  With your assistance, we were able to reach hundreds of residents and others who wanted to share their experiences with us.  We know that some of you are here today, and I want to share my appreciation for your participation and your leadership in the community.  We know that some of you have lost loved ones and others of you have experienced officers’ use of force in deeply personal ways.  We thank you for coming forward and sharing your stories.  Although we were unable to include every incident of excessive force in our findings letter, the information you provided was invaluable.  To all of those individuals who came forward to speak with us, we heard you and we hope to continue working with you to find solutions and a path forward.  Together, with you, the city, and Albuquerque Police, we hope to help heal the city at this critical time and help give Albuquerque officers the support and tools they need to keep the city safe while guaranteeing our most cherished civil rights. 

 

To the women and men of the Albuquerque Police Department, we know your work is difficult and that you face dangers, known and unknown, when you hit the streets every day to keep this city safe.  We recognize that many of you are dedicated public servants who wear your badge with distinction.  We do not intend our findings today to mean that you must needlessly risk your lives or safety.  You must come home safely to your family and loved ones.  When you took your oath as officers, you were empowered to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to protect yourself, your partners, and the public.  What our findings do mean is that more needs to be done by the city and Albuquerque Police to ensure accountability and give you the tools, training, and guidance you need to enforce the law vigorously, while defending the public’s right to be free of excessive force.

 

At the conclusion of our findings letter, you will see a list of recommended remedial measures.

 

The city and the police department have recognized the need for change and have outlined a series of steps that the city will be taking to improve training and accountability.  We welcome these initial steps toward systemic reform.  In fact, it is notable that just yesterday, through patience and de-escalation, two officers took an armed man into custody without violence.  He was shooting a gun into the air and threatening suicide.   They took cover and engaged him and successfully defused the situation.  

 

We met with the mayor and the police chief, among others, last night and will meet with them again this evening to begin a sustained process toward reform.  We look forward to productive discussions on an ongoing basis.

 

Among other things, the city and the Albuquerque Police Department must develop and implement systems to recruit, hire, guide, train, supervise, and discipline officers when they are given a firearm and armed with other lethal and less lethal weapons to ensure they do not engage in excessive force. 

 

These systems must be developed and implemented to guarantee the rights of all individuals, including individuals who are homeless, or who have mental illness or an intellectual or developmental disability.  Some of these individuals are not getting the help they need and can reach points where they pose some risk to themselves or others.  In situations where there is no imminent risk of death or serious injury, officers must be trained and guided to find opportunities to slow down a situation, reassure an individual in distress, and consider options that will resolve the situation safely for both the officer and the individual.  At all times, officers may use reasonable force when they encounter danger, but they do not have an unqualified right to shoot, Taser, punch, or use other force against an individual who is not actively resisting or posing a significant threat. 

 

As I have mentioned, the investigation today looked at patterns and practices of the department as a whole and did not investigate whether any specific shooting or other use of force incident violated any criminal civil rights laws.

 

The investigative team has referred some of the individual incidents to the division’s Criminal Section for review to see if they should be investigated further as the Criminal Section has decided is necessary in the James Boyd shooting.  They are under review and are separate from this investigation and from the findings we are releasing today.

 

What we are engaged in today is institutional reform.  This is difficult work and it takes all stakeholders working together.  We want and need to hear feedback from the community and get your ideas on ways we can work together to address our findings.  Some have already shared their ideas and we look forward to hearing more.  We have also read reports prepared by the Police Oversight Task Force and others.  We will be meeting with police officers and commanders and representatives of the union, as well as working with city officials to identify solutions that are right for Albuquerque and that can make the police department the effective and accountable entity we all want it to be.  

 

In the coming weeks, we will bring the ideas that are generated together to develop a blueprint for sustainable reform.  We hope to be able to enter into an agreement with the city and the Albuquerque Police Department based on that comprehensive blueprint to resolve our findings.  Again, we thank the mayor and chief for their cooperation throughout our investigation and for their willingness to work with us as we move forward. 

 

In closing, we recognize that our findings come at a time of serious public concern over recent officer-involved shootings.  We commend those who have expressed their views peacefully over the past few weeks.  Any needless loss of life is tragic and we hope that our findings today will focus the conversation on solutions for the Albuquerque Police Department. 

 

We also hope that our findings bring attention to broader issues regarding access to mental health care that will require stakeholders beyond the Albuquerque Police to get involved.  We need to equip officers with the tools and training they need to de-escalate and defuse encounters with individuals in mental health crisis where possible, but we also must look for other, more long-term solutions.              

 

The goal of our civil investigation and our findings today is to ensure that the city has an effective, accountable police department.  Constitutional policing is effective policing – it means that police can simultaneously control crime, safeguard the safety and rights of the community, and earn the trust of the public it is charged with protecting. 

 

We will continue to actively engage all stakeholders in the process of developing and implementing a comprehensive set of remedies designed to ensure that Albuquerque’s policing services meet this goal.  A key part of our task is to ensure that the hard work of the many men and women of Albuquerque Police who serve honorably is not overshadowed by the unlawful behavior of others or by institutional deficiencies that make an already difficult job that much harder.  The Department of Justice will remain actively engaged for as long as necessary to ensure sustainable reform and to help restore the community’s trust in its police department.  We look forward to a continuing partnership to advance the goals we all share.

 

Thank You.

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