Showdown in Albuquerque

untitledI have recently posted about three major police issues that I feel must be addressed if our nation’s police are to improve – the need for them to develop methods other than deadly force to respond to people with edged or blunt weapons (most of whom also suffer from mental illness), the new role and prominence of video documentation by citizens with “smart phones” or police using “body cameras,” and for police to use careful, restrained and intelligently methods when responding to public protest.

Click here to view the video that ignited the community. [I warn you that it is graphically violent].

This past week, all three of these issues came together in Albuquerque, New Mexico (pop. 550,000). The city has had a number of fatal shootings by police officers in recent years. This past week, after a homeless man was shot by police officers under questionable circumstances, the community boiled over.

An immediate response from Mayor Richard Berry called the shooting “horrific,” questioned the police chief’s description of the shooting as “justified under law,” and called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate. His actions were timely, but could not stem the tide of growing distrust of police in the city and a need for the city to collectively speak out.

imagesCAFP5DICIn the last four years, officers of the Albuquerque Police Department have been involved in nearly two dozen fatal shootings. The hacking collective, Anonymous, urged citizens to take to the streets. Additionally, they were  most likely involved in a cyber-attack which shutdown the department’s website.

The protest began peacefully around noon on Sunday, March 30 as reported by the Albuquerque Journal. It quickly got out of hand.

Mayor Berry praised the police response. The police, including officers on horseback, used more than two dozen canisters of tear gas on Sunday night. At least five people were arrested.

In a news conference on Monday, Albuquerque’s police chief, Gorden Eden, who took over the post in February, said he continued to have faith in his officers, but announced that the department was nonetheless reviewing how it recruited and trained its officers. I would suggest that the use of force policy might also need review and for the department to listen to their community as to what they expect from their police when they respond to citizens who are exhibiting signs of mental illness.

A middle-aged salesman at a downtown furniture store commented, “[Police] shoot first and ask questions later.” His comment may echo an overwhelming sentiment in this city and a deterioration of police trust. Some questions need to be asked and the department needs know how they stand.

The president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in New Mexico, said the killings highlight the increasing use by the police of military-style weapons. I, among others, have argued that this growing “militarization” of our nation’s police is fundamentally changing the nature of police work.

With that in mind, I would add “police militarization” to the three major issues I listed in the beginning of this blog. The “big four” are:

  1. The use of less-than-deadly methods to respond to the mentally ill.
  2. A more intelligent way to respond to citizens taking public videos of police actions.
  3. Use of effective “soft” methods of crowd control when initially responding to public protest.
  4. De-emphasizing militarization within the department and among its officers.

The Albuquerque mayor and police chief now have their work cut out for them. It is the work of rebuilding community trust. For without trust, a community will not support their police. When police officers are not supported by their community, it is impossible for them to be effective. And that leads to a more dangerous and less-than-safe community.

Albuquerque, I urge you to read my book for some direction and some ideas.