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#abq4ward: A visit to New Orleans sheds light on effects of DOJ involvement on law enforcement

Tessa Mentus
September 11, 2017 12:22 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A city, rich in culture. One that has its own cuisine and style of music. It looks different than nearly any other city in the country, and its unique personality would validate that first impression.

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But there is also crime… more of it.  Police officers? There’s fewer of them.  On top of it all, the Department of Justice was concerned about what those police officers were doing and intervened.

At this point it’s easy to think that description applies to Albuquerque, but you’d be mistaken.  KOB’s mission to try and take #ABQ 4ward took us out of the city, even out of our state…to New Orleans.

Why New Orleans?  How could a city more than 1,100 miles away help us understand what’s happening in Albuquerque?  It looks so different, it even sounds so different.  They face different problems than New Mexicans.

But what the two cities do share is huge – three letters with nearly countless implications.

“We have one of the most handcuffed, reform settlement agreements that we have in modern day policing, right here in Albuquerque,” said Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association.

As for New Orleans?

“Shy of firing people, it was almost wiping the slate clean and starting over,” said New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison of his department’s settlement agreement with the D.O.J.

KOB sat down with Harrison in August.  It turns out we have something else in common when it comes to the DOJ – the consequences.  

The one felt almost immediately among NOPD and APD officers?

“It is burdensome. It has a heavy administrative burden that really slows every part of the department down because it requires heavy documentation of every single thing we do,” Harrison said.  “There is so much training with this police overhaul, police reform, that there were days we had more officers in training than we actually did on the streets providing police services.”

You’ll hear the same complaints from Willoughby.  He claims you’re more likely to see that administrative burden if an APD officer uses any type of force, even tackling someone during a foot chase.

“I have officers who will call me and ask me, ‘These are young officers right out of the academy, is it normal for me to get into a simple use of force at 8 a.m. and that be the last call that I take that day?  Is that normal for a use of force investigation to take 8 hours?’ Today it is, yesterday it wasn't,” Willoughby said.  “You've lost the sergeant, you've lost any officer that was with them (and) you've lost that entire squad in some cases.”

The other concerning potential consequence, according to both Harrison and Willoughby, is fewer officers.

The DOJ arrived in New Orleans in 2012. That year, the NOPD had a little more than 1,250 officers, but then that number start to drop, first to  1,188 in 2013, then 1,136 in 2014.

The force added just two officers in 2015, but then added nearly 30 officers in 2016 to bring the total count to 1,164.

Does Harrison believe the DOJ contributed to a loss in officers?

“There were some officers who, when they did their exit interviews or if they anecdotally told us why they left, gave the excuse of, ‘It's the consent decree.’ Certainly some of them were able to go work for departments that did not have a consent decree,” Harrison said.  “That’s where it really hurts. We want to get them to reconsider and stay.”

Willoughby said he believes it has led to difficulties in hiring new officers, and perhaps even going the opposite way.

“I think it has contributed to losing officers. I believe this isn't the police department that I signed up to work on 13 years ago,” Willougby said. “I mean, policing in this police department has changed drastically.”

Then there is the third potential negative consequence of the DOJ intervention… the one most of us in Albuquerque are living through right now – what seems to be a never-ending influx of crime.

“Anybody that lives here and was born and raised here, we know how far bad it's gone. We've said it before, we'll say it again: I’ve sat in this room on camera with several news entities… if they don't address it, if they don't take care of the problem, the problem will deal with you. That’s what is happening in Albuquerque,” Willoughby said. “We're number one in auto theft and we have four guys in auto theft right now.”

Harrison said his officers and community survived their own crime wave after the DOJ arrived, but he’ll be the first to say it wasn’t an easy wave to ride out.

“(It) reduces visibility, reduces the deterrence effect (and) the ability to apprehend people who commit crime. So we started seeing some increases,” he said.  “We didn't tie directly to the consent decree, but the officers performing the work certainly feel that way.”

KOB wasn’t the only entity from Albuquerque to visit New Orleans about the DOJ. During our time with Harrison, we learned some APD officials were recently there to learn about DOJ reform.

City of Albuquerque Director of Communications Rhiannon Samuel confirmed APD Assistant Chief Robert Hunstman, Deputy Chief Eric Garcia, Majors Jessica Tyler and Joe Christman, and Lieutenant Greg Weber spent three days with the NOPD to look specifically at the department’s use of force review boards.

There’s a reason we at KOB 4 chose to visit New Orleans on our own.  You see, their police department is now heading in the right direction.  It is two years ahead of us when it comes to its relationship with the DOJ, so what did it take to turn things around?

“We worked with the monitor, we worked with the DOJ,” Harrison said.  “To physically go in and demonstrate to them how sometimes this process improvement, and the over-burdensome oversight and strict compliance to what we were doing with this process improvement, caused us to slow down so much and create so much training that it was causing our officers to not be able to provide public safety, and therefore making our citizens feel unsafe.”

Harrison added they were able to modify the consent decree in a way that all parties involved understood the need for flexibility as they continue to put the needs of their citizens before anything else.

Harrison said he created a two-way street with the DOJ; communication was key in that relationship.  If a policy works, everyone benefited, but if it didn’t, they realized some changed is OK. 

That’s the path taking New Orleans into possibly the final years of its time with the DOJ.  The city has a goal to end the oversight by 2020.

Harrison and Willoughby will tell you the DOJ has brought positive consequences as well.  For example, they both believe their departments are some of the best trained in the nation. They also claim they’ve documented use-of-force incidents much more efficiently.

These are two cities with many differences to the naked eye, but what they share goes beyond the consequences of a federal intervention; they both have pride, they both have hope and the people who call these cities home have a burning desire to make life better and safer than it was before. 

New Orleans seems to have found its path.  Now, it’s time to take #ABQ 4ward.

KOB tried to get a sit-down, on-camera interview with APD Chief Gorden Eden, but we didn’t hear back before the deadline for this report.  His communications staff sent the following statement from him:

"Our continued reform efforts ensure that Albuquerque Police Officers are guided by some of the best policies and training in the Nation. The City and Department are committed to our reforms. As a nationwide leader in crisis intervention, on body cameras, and reality based training, we have seen many positive results in our community. I want to thank our officers for embracing our reforms and new training. It is through their efforts that we continue to see strong, encouraging outcomes on our streets."

KOB also reached out to the City of Albuquerque about the DOJ’s influence on the crime problem.  Officials responded with a chart of what they believe has caused the crime epidemic. 

The DOJ was one of eight contributors on the chart, including a new district attorney, a lower jail population, preventive detention/state constitutional amendments, the new risk assessment tool for judges known as the Arnold Tool, the officer shortage, the Case Management Order and new bail rules.
 

Credits

Tessa Mentus

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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