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For Albuquerque PD, A Searing Rebuke From Justice Department


The Justice Department issued a scathing report today on the Albuquerque Police Department's use of force. Albuquerque officers have shot and killed 23 people in the last four years. Many of the victims were mentally or emotionally unstable. The report says the department has systemic deficiencies that caused the deaths and many other incidents. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The Department of Justice investigation lasted 16 months. Assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, Jocelyn Samuels, released the report's conclusions at a news conference in Albuquerque. She said Albuquerque police have violated people's constitutional rights and shown a pattern of using unnecessary excessive force that has gone on for years.

JOCELYN SAMUELS: We found that officers used deadly force against people who did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious harm to the officers or to others and against people who posed a threat only to themselves. In fact, we found that sometimes it was the conduct of the officers themselves that heightened the danger and escalated the need to use force.

ROBBINS: That was evident when police confronted a homeless man just last month. Thirty-eight-year-old James Boyd was illegally camping in the Albuquerque foothills. Police woke Boyd and argued with him before one officer warned him that he could be killed if he didn't cooperate. The encounter was captured on a police helmet camera. The first voice is the officer; the second, Boyd.


ROBBINS: Boyd then turned around and appeared to be surrendering when officers fired.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Down. Get on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Get on the ground.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Get on the ground now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Get on the ground.

ROBBINS: The Justice Department is investigating the Boyd shooting for possible criminal charges. Albuquerque police chief, Gordon Eden, called the shooting justified. That prompted a 12-hour protest in central Albuquerque less than two weeks ago.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Get off of the sidewalk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Killer. Killer.

ROBBINS: The DOJ's Jocelyn Samuels blamed inadequate oversight of police, inadequate reporting of incidents, inadequate officer training concerning the use of force. And she said it was not limited to the use of deadly force.

SAMUELS: 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.

ROBBINS: Brian Stettin is with the Treatment Advocacy Center, which promotes treatment for mental health. He says the use of force against the mentally ill is a growing national problem that police are not equipped to deal with.

BRIAN STETTIN: Confrontations, deadly confrontations between members of the public and police officers are on the increase in recent years. And there's lots of anecdotal reason to believe that that is because of increasing numbers of people with mental illness being on the street.

ROBBINS: Forty-five states have what are called assisted outpatient treatment programs for the mentally ill. New Mexico is not one of them. The Justice Department calls for an agreement with the city of Albuquerque. The city has been asked to cooperate before. It turned down a previous DOJ request.

Just last night, Michael Gomez, whose son was killed by the Albuquerque police, confronted the city council on its lack of action or even interest.

MICHAEL GOMEZ: Now, look what's happening. We warned you, we've been telling you, we've been pleading with you. But, no, you sit there and look at your cellphones. You're looking at your iPads. You don't even listen to us, you know? It's about time...

ROBBINS: There's no avoiding the issue now. The DOJ is calling for reforming the way police are trained and supervised, along with how incidents are investigated. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.

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