Welcome to the City of Albuquerque

The Purpose of This Study

The authors of this report were retained by the City Council of Albuquerque to evaluate the tripartite system of oversight of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD). This system consists of the Independent Counsel (IC), the Public Safety Advisory Board (PSAB), and the Internal Affairs (IA) unit of the police department.

The contract for this study did not call for an evaluation of the APD as a whole, or any particular aspect of APD policy and procedures (apart from the Internal Affairs Unit), or any other aspect of government in Albuquerque or Bernalillo County. Nonetheless, in order to fully evaluate the oversight of the APD we found it necessary to investigate and comment on other factors that affect policing in Albuquerque. In particular we have found it necessary to comment on other parts of city government which also have some responsibility for oversight of the APD. These include the City Attorney's office, the Risk Management office, City Council, and the Mayor's office. We also found it necessary to discuss the use of deadly force by APD officers, the handling of mentally ill persons by APD, and the provision of mental health services in Bernalillo County.

We should also caution readers that this study was not intended to investigate particular incidents involving Albuquerque police officers. It is not an inquest or the equivalent of a grand jury investigation. It contains no discussion of specific incidents involving the use of force by APD officers. Our mission, as defined by City Council, is to examine the effectiveness of the oversight mechanisms for the Albuquerque Police Department.

The Context of the Study

This study was undertaken in the context of a serious and on-going community crisis regarding the performance of the APD, particularly with reference to the fatal shootings of citizens. This controversy has continued for at least a decade. The months immediately preceding the initial work on this study in late 1996 were marked by public protests over fatal shootings by APD officers, including candlelight vigils on behalf of persons shot and killed. There were also several extremely stormy meetings of the Public Safety Advisory Board (PSAB) over the issue of police shootings. These meetings left all of three major parties involved -- community representatives, the police chief, members of the PSAB itself -- feeling angry and bitter. Significantly, the two principal antagonists -- the community representatives and the police chief -- were both equally angry and frustrated over the failure of the PSAB to effectively deal with the problem.

The bad feelings about the performance of the PSAB were only one manifestation of the situation that gave rise to this study: the feeling among many people in the Albuquerque community that the existing mechanisms for oversight of the police department were not working effectively.

There were many other indications of problems related to the perceived performance of both the APD and the various oversight mechanisms.

First, as this study began, the PSAB was in the process of undertaking a study of the use of force by the APD. In fact, the composition of the so-called "Blue-Ribbon Committee" was a matter of considerable controversy.

Second, the City Attorney's office had already contracted with other consultants for a study of the APD SWAT Team. This was evidently prompted by the involvement of the SWAT team in a number of the fatal shootings over the years.

Third, the City Attorney's office had also contracted for a separate study of the use of force the APD officers.

Fourth, the fact that City Council sought outside consultants for this study is a manifestation of a perceived problem with the existing police oversight mechanisms.

Fifth, we found that public attitudes about the APD are affected by the legacy of several past controversies. Among other things, this includes a controversy over allegations that the APD Intelligence Unit improperly maintained files on law-abiding citizens. We take no position on the merits of the allegations in this case. But we did find that the memory of that case and others was alive in the minds of many citizens and it affected their perceptions of the APD. The arrest on criminal charges of the commander of the APD Internal Affairs unit a few years ago has also damaged the credibility of the APD and the Internal Affairs unit in particular in the minds of many people.

As our research progressed, we were struck by the strong feelings many people had about the APD and the oversight mechanisms. A number of people contacted us, having heard about our presence in Albuquerque only second or third hand. They desperately wanted to talk to us about their concerns.

Our study also coincided with a separate controversy over salaries for APD officers. Current salaries are low in comparison with comparable cities in the southwest, and there are reports of a number of officers leaving for better paying jobs with other departments. To correct this problem the mayor had promised APD officers a 14 percent raise over and above whatever was negotiated in the contract with the Albuquerque Police Officers Association. At the time of our extended research trip to Albuquerque there was much controversy over the 14 percent raise, and some question as to whether it would be forthcoming. All of these factors contributed to an apparent morale crisis among APD officers.

In short, this evaluation began in the context of a strong sense of community crisis over both the APD and the three oversight mechanisms.

Not everyone will agree with our characterization of the state of police-community relations in Albuquerque. Periodically, the Institute for Social Research at the University of New Mexico surveys Albuquerque residents regarding their attitudes toward the Albuquerque Police Department. The survey has been directed by Professor Gary LaFree, a nationally recognized expert in the field of criminal justice.

The 1996 survey found that Albuquerque residents give the APD high ratings. Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed felt that the APD is doing a "very good" or "good job" in preventing crime. Only about 10 percent felt that the APD is doing a "poor" or "very poor" job. Additionally, the percentage who feel that the APD is doing a "very good" or "good" job was substantially higher in 1996 compared with the 1990, 1992, and 1993 surveys.(1)

The 1993 survey, however, found a difference in attitudes toward the police with respect to ethnicity. Hispanic residents were less likely than Anglo respondents to agree with the statement that the APD "treats suspects in custody firmly but fairly." Hispanics were even less likely to agree with the statement that the APD "treats minorities the same as they treat others." Additionally, the 1993 report stated that "the gap between Anglos and Hispanics on this issue has been widening in the past three years."(2) Curiously, these questions about fairness and equality were either not asked or not reported in the 1996 survey.

Several comments are in order about the results of the citizen satisfaction surveys. First, as we have already noted, they are consistent with national and local surveys conducted over the past thirty years.(3) The police consistently receive favorable ratings from between 60 and 80 percent of the overall public. Second, racial and ethnic minorities consistently rate the police less favorably than whites or Anglos. Most important, general surveys of public attitudes do not necessarily explore the nature of police problems. The average citizen has only infrequent contact with the police and very rarely has conflict with a police officer. It is a truism that the police have a disproportionate amount of contact with a relatively small percentage of the community, and that incidents involving conflict (e.g., use of force) are heavily concentrated among low-income, racial and ethnic minority males. The average person hardly ever is involved in a shooting incident with the police. Thus, a general public opinion survey does not necessarily explore the dimensions of specific police problems, particularly shooting incidents.

The results of the citizen satisfaction surveys notwithstanding, we believe there is persuasive evidence of serious problems related to APD policies and practices. We turn now to the issue of fatal shootings.

The Issue of Fatal Shootings

The focus of the controversy surrounding the APD for many years has been the issue of fatal shootings of citizens by APD officers. Within hours of arriving for our initial visit to Albuquerque, we were confronted with a newspaper article on the use of deadly force by APD officers. The article indicated that there had been 30 fatal shootings in the previous ten years.(4) We immediately and intuitively sensed that this was an extremely high figure for a police department the size of the APD.(5) Moreover, since that initial visit, there have been two additional fatal shootings, both of which were surrounded by controversy.

Although we were not charged with responsibility for investigating the use of deadly force by APD officers, this issue demanded investigation on our part. A comparative perspective on the fatal shooting rate in Albuquerque would set the parameters of our evaluation of the oversight mechanisms. If, for example, we found that the rate of fatal shootings in Albuquerque is not unusually high, this would suggest that the oversight mechanisms may be working reasonably well and that much of the controversy over shootings is exaggerated. If, on the other hand, we found that the rate of fatal shootings is unusually high, then we would be led to the conclusion that the oversight mechanisms may not be functioning properly and that many of the criticisms of the APD (and the oversight mechanisms) are justified.

The issue of police use of deadly force has been extensively and intensively studied over the past twenty years. We brought this body of knowledge to bear on the situation in Albuquerque.(6)

We collected data on fatal shootings from a number of cities across the country. We avoided both those cities that are much larger than Albuquerque (e.g., New York, Chicago) and those that are much smaller. The relevant data were not always available for a ten-year period, and so in some cases we have used data for six or four years periods. The data are presented in Table 1-1.

Based on our analysis of data, we conclude that the rate of fatal shootings by APD officers over the past decade is unusually and unacceptably high. Police departments in other cities, some of which have more sworn officers and some of which are in cities with comparable or higher crime rates, shoot and kill citizens at a far lower rate than in Albuquerque.

Some people suggested to us that the high rate of fatal shootings is due to a high crime rate in Albuquerque. Yet, the official figures published by the APD indicate that the crime rate for Albuquerque is very close (and in some years slightly lower than) the national average for cities of the same size. Table 1-3 reproduces the relevant page from the APD Annual Report.

TABLE 1-1

We are not aware of any plausible reason why cities such as San Jose, Seattle, and Charlotte, which have larger police forces than Albuquerque, shoot and kill significantly fewer citizens. To dramatize the contrast, we estimated the hypothetical number of shootings in these other cities adjusted for the size of the Albuquerque Police Department. These estimates are presented in Table 1-2. Nor are we aware of any reason for the dramatic contrast between the number of shootings in Albuquerque compared with the southwestern cities of Tulsa and Austin. Finally, the figures from Buffalo suggest that it is possible to police a large city with a serious crime problem with no fatal shootings for several years.

One of the most important findings of research on police use of deadly force is that shooting rates are heavily determined by the deadly force policies and practices of each department.(7) The development of the restrictive "defense of life" policy as a replacement for the more permissive "fleeing felon" rule is responsible for much of the reduction in the number of persons shot and killed at the national level.

If anyone disagrees with our conclusion that the rate of fatal shootings is unusually and unacceptably high, the burden of proof is on them to present systematic comparative data that suggests a different conclusion.

Table 1-2

TABLE 1-3

The recent evaluation of the APD SWAT team concluded that there was nothing unusual about shooting practices.(8) We find two problems with this report, however. First, it only focused on SWAT team incidents, leaving aside the many fatal shooting incidents that involved non-SWAT officers. Second, even though the authors of that report claim to have conducted a comparative study of other police departments, the data from that survey are not included in their report.(9) Thus, it is impossible for anyone reading the report to determine whether the authors drew the proper conclusion from the data.

It is still possible to find differences in fatal shooting rates between departments that have similar official policies. These differences are in part attributable to department practices , which are shaped by such factors as traditional local practices, the nature of departmental supervision and discipline. These latter factors all contribute to the distinct "organizational culture" of a police department. We find no persuasive evidence to indicate that the high fatal shooting rate is related to anything other than the practices of the APD.

One aspect of the controversy in Albuquerque is the fact that a number of fatal shootings have involved mentally disturbed persons. Several people referred to this in terms of a gruesome joke about "police assisted suicide." A mentally disturbed person is not the same as an armed robber. We find it difficult to believe that Albuquerque and Bernalillo County have more mentally ill people than comparable cities. We did, however, find serious deficiencies in the provision of mental health services in both the city and the county.(10) This aspect of the fatal shooting problem, then, may be the combined result of a failure on the part of the County to provide adequate mental health services and the failure of the APD to develop adequate procedures for handling the mentally ill.

We are pleased to note that the APD is currently taking steps to reduce the number of fatal shootings. First, it is implementing a new Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) to respond to incidents involving mentally disturbed persons. We believe that the CIT is appropriate and long overdue. The effectiveness of the program needs to be carefully monitored in the months and years ahead. Second, it has implemented the use of "bean bag" technology as a less than lethal alternative for police officers. Third, Police Chief Joseph Polisar is working closely with mental health officials to develop a secure facility for mentally disturbed persons.

The Question of Citizen Review of Police

Our study of the oversight mechanisms for the APD took place in the context of some debate over the question of whether there should be a "civilian review board." A number of the community leaders we talked with argued strongly in favor of this approach. Enabling legislation related to civilian review boards has been introduced in the state legislature over the years, and a bill is pending during the current session. A number of police officers, meanwhile, expressed strong opposition to the idea.

There is much misunderstanding about this subject. Chapter Nine of this report describes five models of citizen review in detail, including commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of each model. We hope that the material in Chapter Nine clarifies the alternatives that are possible with respect to oversight of the police.

It is important to stress, however, that Albuquerque currently has citizen review or oversight of the APD. In fact, it has two different forms of citizen review, and has had both for a number of years.

The question facing the citizens of Albuquerque, then, is not whether to have citizen review. That question was answered affirmatively several years ago. The question now is whether or not the existing forms of citizen review are working effectively , and whether some different form would be more effective. That is the specific question the City Council of Albuquerque asked us to address.


1. Institute for Social Research, Albuquerque Police Department: Citizen Satisfaction Survey, June 1996 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1996).

2. Statistical Analysis Center, Albuquerque Police Department: Citizen Satisfaction Survey, November 1993 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1993), pp. 7-8.

3. The most recent and most comprehensive national survey is W. S. Wilson Huang and Michael S. Vaughn, "Support and Confidence: Public Attitudes Toward the Police," in T. J.Flanagan and Dennis R. Longmire, eds., Americans View Crime and Justice (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996), pp. 31-45. The bibliography includes citations to earlier studies.

4. "Police Force," The Weekly Alibi (December 11-17, 1996), pp. 12ff.

5. In 1995 the size of the APD had increased to 928 sworn officers: Albuquerque Police Department, Annual Report 1995 (Albuquerque, 1995).

6. The definitive work on the subject is William A. Geller and Michael S. Scott, Deadly Force: What We Know (Washington: Police Executive Research Forum, 1992).

7. Geller and Scott, Deadly Force: What We Know.

8. R. M. McCarthy & Associates, Independent Report to the City of Albuquerque Legal Department on the Albuquerque Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (January 1997).

9. Ibid., pp. 84-88.

10. This point was made to us most effectively by Police Chief Joseph Polisar and APD Psychologist Donn Hubler.

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