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Justice Department accuses Albuquerque police of ‘unjustified force’

April 10, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
The Justice Department released a scathing report on its findings of a pattern of “unjustified force” by the Albuquerque Police Department in New Mexico. The report offers details on 23 fatal shootings since 2010, including the March shooting of James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man with a history of mental illness. Jeffrey Brown talks to Gene Grant of KNME, who has been covering this story.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Justice Department today released a scathing report finding what it calls a pattern of unjustified force in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Police Department.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The report cites incidents dating back to 2010, 37 people shot by police, 23 of them fatally. The most recent occurred just last month and was caught on videotape: the fatal shooting of James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man with a history of mental illness.

That led to a violent street protest against alleged police brutality.

Gene Grant is host of “New Mexico in Focus” on New Mexico Public Television. He has been covering this story and joins us tonight from Albuquerque.

Well, Gene, the Justice Department cited a pattern of excessive force, so they’re seeing something that links all these shootings, right? Explain that.

GENE GRANT, New Mexico Public Television: It’s interesting.

As you mentioned, there were 37 incidents, 23 of them fatal. And what they were looking for, quite specifically, if there was an unconstitutional pattern of Fourth Amendment rights being violated here. And they were quite strong in their opening statement right off the bat of the hearing this morning that, in fact, their findings did find, in fact, that the Albuquerque Police Department had a number of situations that they found unconstitutional and did violate those rights.

And what that actually did was opened up a lot of dialogue about, well, what is going on here? What is the pattern? And the big problem out here for us with the situation is folks who are mentally ill or in some crisis of some sort. And what the DOJ found was, especially in those cases, APD is coming up short. There is excessive use of force, sometimes deadly, but they mentioned also using Tasers.

They were not — not pleased with that part of it as well, as part of a pattern. Not just deadly force, but excessive force was very much part of the situation. They laid out a whole criteria of changes they would like to see. They made it quite clear they intend to stay around the DOJ for a bit and work with APD and the city of Albuquerque and Mayor Richard Berry on some of the reforms.

However, what we don’t have at this point and what is apparently being discussed tonight between DOJ and the administration and the Albuquerque Police Department is taking it that next step, with a possible consent degree or a possible federal monitor that would be on hand for a period of time.

GENE GRANT: Sorry. Go ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: No, no, no, I was going to say, just to step back here first, because this has build — been building over a number of years, what’s been the police reaction along the way? And where are they now?

GENE GRANT: That’s a great question.

You know, it’s interesting. We have a new chief, Chief Gordon Eden. He came to replace Ray Schultz, where a lot of these shootings happened under his watch, under Ray Schultz. In that time, Jeffrey, what happened was the use of lapel cameras became part of the reform back a year-and-a-half ago, two years ago.

And that is in fact what happened in this James Boyd case, as you know, where it went global. The video just took it to a whole new level. Now, the reaction from the police has been fairly muted so far, but until this point today, there’s been a bit of a circling of the wagons. There’s been a bit of everything is OK here, going back a year-and-a-half, two years ago or so.

I think the police department now just basically has its hands tied. They know the community is not going to accept the status quo anymore. We have had three protest marches, one of which made the news globally. I went to the first march, the peaceful march last Tuesday, an enormous march by Albuquerque standards. People have pretty much had it.

So, for the police department, it’s a difficulty. They really don’t have anything left to say now that the Department of Justice has had its say on the constitutionality of these issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, when I interrupted you earlier, you were starting to talk a little bit about what happens next, because that is, of course, the key question.

GENE GRANT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you said, in some cities, this has led to federal oversight. That’s one possibility here. What is on the table?

GENE GRANT: You know, it’s interesting to try to figure out what is on the table, because the mayor came out about noon today, Mayor Richard Berry, and said, look, we have a lot of work to do.

However, he also said three weeks ago that he would prefer and ask for a federal monitor for the situation. He actually came right out without being pressured to do so. So what does that mean in these negotiations with the DOJ? We don’t know. Is it going to be something in between?

The big question is, what will the community accept, Jeffrey? You know, for a lot of folks here, there is going to be nothing less than a complete takeover, which nobody thinks is going to happen, won’t be enough. But something has to happen where folks feel like the police department is not correcting itself.

We have been through that for 20 years now, and now it’s time for something else. And that is what DOJ is in essence saying. It’s time to turn the page and try another way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how big a deal — when you refer to the community, we saw some of these protests. Some of them turned violent, right, especially after the — after James Boyd was shot.

JEFFREY BROWN: How big a deal is it? How much has it really galvanized the public there?

GENE GRANT: You knows what’s interesting? It’s as big a deal as I can remember for anything here. I have lived here about 27 years.

And it really — when you — when I went to the protest on Tuesday, the cross-section of Albuquerque was startling. This wasn’t, you know, a young, lefty crowd out there to cause trouble. These were single women, families, people with strollers, couples, elderly, a lot of elders. I saw a lot of elders.

And they were just very upset with the whole situation, just saying, look, enough is enough. We’re — this is going to be stop.

It is an enormous thing. It’s dominating the news here. It’s dominating the blogs. It’s certainly dominating talk radio and talk shows. You go around town, everybody has got an opinion. It’s amazing the amount of cross-section, by the way, on that point of folks who are not pleased with APD right now. I’m talking a lot of folks who would be naturally inclined to support the police department are now saying to themselves, OK, wait a minute, we need — we have got a problem here.

You can’t have 23 deaths, you know, and most of them, a lot of them mentally ill, and not have a problem. So everyone is looking for a solution here. It’s an economic development issue. It’s a quality of life issue. It’s a civil liberties issue. It — it cuts across all — all constituencies here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gene Grant of New Mexico Public Television, as always, thanks a lot.

GENE GRANT: My pleasure.