DOJ Issues Scathing Review Of Albuquerque Police Department' Use Of Force, Tempers It By Prioritizing Officer Safety
from the if-you-don't-like-the-risks,-don't-take-the-job dept
The Albuquerque, New Mexico police department has been a mess for quite some time now. Recently, it has gained national attention for two seemingly unjustified shootings of New Mexico residents. This is in addition to the 37 people the police force has shot since 2010, with 23 confirmed kills. As Ed Krayewski at Reason points out, the APD has shot more people than the NYPD, despite policing a city sixteen times smaller.
The Department of Justice was already investigating the department before the two latest shootings. The first involved a homeless person “illegally” camping, an infraction apparently punishable by death in New Mexico. The officers claimed the man came at them with knives, but video clearly shows him surrendering and attempting to walk down to them before being hit with a concussion grenade, followed shortly by several bullets. As for the danger poised by the knives he was carrying, the 20-30 feet between him and the officers at the beginning of the video (not to mention the difference in altitude) makes this much less of a threat than the reports indicated.
While the city of Albuquerque was still digesting the news of this apparently unjustified shooting, the APD shot another person. The police claimed he fired at them (and they did recover a gun at the scene) but video shot by an onlooker appears to show the man holding something (gun or cellphone) to his own head before shots ring out and he drops to the ground.
These shootings sparked a series of increasingly confrontational protests against the police, as well as drawing the attention of Anonymous, which took down the APD website.
The release of the DOJ’s report is certainly well-timed, if nothing else. Those who have seen the entire thing call it “scathing.” The prepared remarks from the DOJ’s Jocelyn Samuels are certainly damning enough.
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.
The remarks run on for much longer, noting the steps that will be taken to put the APD back in compliance with the Constitution and temper its officers’ tendency to apply as much force as possible in a majority of situations. However, Samuels also takes the time to pat the heads of a police force so out of control the government was forced to step in.
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.
This is what Scott Greenfield refers to as the “First Rule of Policing:” make it home safe. Even the DOJ follows it, apparently. But this should be a goal, not a priority. The “dedicated officers” know they’re putting themselves in a dangerous position by taking the job. This doesn’t give them permission to do whatever it takes to save their own lives.
Firemen don’t just walk away from a fire if it looks life-threatening. Soldiers aren’t told they can indiscriminately open fire if things feel a bit sketchy. Airline pilots aren’t encouraged to jettison planes full of people (or over populated areas) in order to assure they “come home safely.” Any other person taking a job that’s potentially life-threatening assumes the risks. Cops somehow don’t. And they use this “rule” as a justification for swift, thoughtless reactions that result in teens carrying Wii controllers getting shot and homeless schizophrenics being beaten to death.
By adding this disclaimer, Samuels partially absolves the APD of all of its wrongdoing. “You did what you had to do to survive.” That attitude isn’t going to fix anything and as long as police officers are encouraged to view their own safety as paramount, excessive force will continue to be applied.