Feds: 'Excessive force' found in Albuquerque police

The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday released a scathing report in response to a series of deadly police shootings that pointed to patterns of excessive force by the Albuquerque Police Department, serious constitutional violations and a lack of training and oversight of its officers.

After more than a year of reviewing hundreds of cases handled by the Albuquerque police, the federal agency found that officers too frequently used deadly force on people "who posed a minimal threat" and used a higher level of force too often on those with mental illness.

Albuquerque police have received much criticism over 37 shootings by officers since 2010, 23 of which were fatal. The Justice Department found the majority of those shootings were unreasonable and violated constitutional rights. The DOJ also found a significant number of instances in which officers used less lethal measures such as Tasers in an unconstitutional manner.

Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said the investigation was thorough and that it became clear the problems within the police department were systemic.

"The reforms we are proposing ... are going to result in the kinds of structures that will over time create a change in the culture," she said. "It starts with commitment from the top."

She acknowledged that changes will not happen overnight.

The findings served as validation for critics who have long complained that a culture of aggression has permeated the police department. However, some community members voiced concerns after Thursday's announcement that recommendations have been made in the past with city leaders failing to take action.

DOJ officials planned to brief Mayor Richard Berry, police Chief Gorden Eden and other officials on the findings Thursday afternoon.

Last week, Berry asked the federal agency to expedite its review and help overhaul the city's police force. His request followed a violent protest last month in response to the shooting death of a homeless man who had threatened to kill officers. The man was gathering his belongings and turning away when officers opened fire, helmet camera video showed.

The Justice Department is recommending that Albuquerque make numerous changes to its use of force policy to, among other things, place more emphasis on techniques for de-escalating potentially violent situations. The recommendations also call for a more objective and rigorous internal accountability system that includes reviews and investigations when force is used.

Under the recommendations, officers would be required to participate in crisis intervention training and higher eligibility standards would be set for supervisors and staff assigned to the police department's tactical units.

Samuels also noted that the department's "broken" civilian oversight process would need to be fixed.

The Justice Department said it will work with the city to develop a consent agreement to begin implementing changes. Negotiations with the city will determine whether a federal monitor will be needed.

Samuels did not offer a timetable for the negotiations, but said the agency would remain engaged for "as long as is necessary."

If a federal monitor is appointed and the city agrees on terms, Albuquerque would join cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Seattle that are subject to federal oversight.

Scrutiny of the Albuquerque force is one of 15 investigations of police departments launched during President Barack Obama's first term.

Until Thursday's announcement, federal officials released few details of the Albuquerque investigation but conducted hundreds of interviews with officials and residents.

Jewel Hall, a retired teacher and president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center Board, participated in many of the meetings. She said she was hopeful the police department would adopt some of the recommendations.

Still, she said the community "needs to be involved and their input needs to be respected."

New Mexico's acting U.S. Attorney, Damon Martinez, called Thursday a milestone for the city and the police department.

"The coming days and months will determine the next generation of what policing will look like in our city," he said. "We are at a unique time and place where the city can decisively determine the culture of the Albuquerque Police Department and its relationship with the community."