ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It dominated headlines for years before the federal government stepped in to force change.
The Albuquerque Police Department is now in a middle of a paradigm shift affecting how officers do their job to protect the community and when they use force. Millions of dollars are being spent to reform the department and change what the Department of Justice called a “culture of aggression,” that lead to numerous rough arrests, dozens of officer-involved shootings and several costly civil lawsuits.
“The Albuquerque Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of violating residents fourth amendment rights by using excessive force during police encounters,” said Jocelyn Samuels of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
At the core of many of those problems has been the department’s policy and training behind officers’ “use of force”.
Now months into multi-year federal monitoring period, APD is close to completing its requirement to give new “use of force” training to its entire staff of sworn police officers.
KRQE News 13 recently got an inside look at much of the new instruction and training that officers are learning. Through hours of classroom time and hands-on training, APD hopes its officers will prove to the community that they’ve begun the process of systemic change.
Defining “Use of Force”
Since APD signed on to the settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, outlining how the police department would change its ways, APD has be creating both training revisions and changes to outlined policy, or standard operating procedure (SOP.)
In APD’s own progress report filed in U.S. Federal Court in February, the department outlined that the Federal Monitor, James Ginger, accepted APD’s new “use of force” policy back in January 2016.
The new policy is completely rewritten from what the department used to have on the books. Some of the major components include a new emphasis on “de-escalation”; a definition of the different levels of resistance a suspect can show; and a definition of the different levels of force officers are able to use.
The new use of force policy went into effect on January 21, 2016. It’s currently set to expire on July 21, 2016. The department and the federal monitor will reassess if the new policy is working around that time, then figure out what’s next.
Since the new use of force policy went into action, the Albuquerque Police Department began re-training its current officers almost immediately. Since February 1, 2016, every week, the department has been pulling around 50 sworn officers from their regular work to focus solely on use of force training.
“We’ve spent 40 hours this year with every single police officer, explain to them, Constitutionally, what cues and reasons they can take into account when they’re making force decisions,” said Ray DeFrates, an APD instructor.
DeFrates is a patrolman and instructor with the Albuquerque Police Academy. He’s one of the people leading a major segment of the new training.
“For me, the most frustrating part was the timeline from when I was given to start this training until the deadline, that’s been the hardest part,” said DeFrates.
According to DeFrates, by June 2nd, Albuquerque Police is expected to be 95% compliant with the new “use of force” training. The training is mandatory for all sworn officers.
New use of force training itself is comprised of five, eight-hour days that include both classroom instruction and reality-based, role playing scenarios. The idea is to have officers to hit “reset” on some of the practices they’re used to.
“I think that definitely people are going to see that we’re doing everything we can to use only that force that’s reasonable necessary at the time that those incidents happen,” said DeFrates.
DeFrates says he hears the criticism, and wants officers to get better.
“There’s always those things that we could have done a little bit better, always,” said DeFrates.
A major component of APD’s new “use of force” training comes in the classroom. For the first three days of training, officers recieve instructions on topics including use of force; the procedure behind the teams response for investigating officer-involved shootings; TASER use; crowd control and de-escalation. The de-escalation training comes in addition to “Crisis Intervention Team” training that APD says nearly every officer has completed as of mid-2016.
In the classroom, in part, there’s re-emphasis on the concepts of time, distance and officers’ consideration about using the minimum amount of force necessary.
“Can I justify a use of force on a probability or something that (a suspect) may be armed? No. I’m basing my use of force decision on what? Their actions,” said Ray Fritts, an APD officer and instructor with the Albuquerque Police Academy who leads much of the classroom training.
As a part of the TASER re-certification in the training, APD officers are also being taught to use the device less often, and in different ways than the department used to.
“We can no longer use it in drive-stun mode alone,” said Fritts.
The so-called “drive-stun” mode is the when the TASER’s electric current in the nose of the device is jabbed directly into a person’s body. The mode is often considered to cause extreme pain, but instructors say “drive-stun” has often led to increased resistance.
APD officers are now required to fire the darts of their TASER first to try to immobilize the suspect, before using drive-stun mode. The TASER is also now considered one of the highest “uses of force” in the department’s approved weapons.
The new training also has officers being taught to go hands on with uncooperative suspect more often. In order to do that, APD is giving officers new, refreshed real-world scenarios to learn from. One of those scenarios forces officers to practice the arrest of a resisting person with a misdemeanor warrant.
In KRQE News 13’s observation of one scenario, a role-playing suspect resisted putting his hands behind his back to be patted down. The role-playing officer took the movements as the suspect possibly trying to conceal something, or draw a weapon. In response, the officer took the suspect to the ground.
“I said, ‘don’t pull away from me,’ he pulled away from me again, and started trying to flee,” said Albuquerque Police Sergeant Ferris Simmons, who was undergoing the training.
Instructors are also standing in on the practice sessions, offering critiques to the officer’s reasoning. It’s feedback that some officers say they haven’t had since their police academy days.
“You cover the three things, severity of the crime, immediate threat, and if he’s actively fleeing or fighting,” said the instructor, in offering a critique of what an officer needs to think about before taking action.
Because APD is teaching officers to go hands-on more often, they’re also retraining officers on how to defend themselves against suspects who try to get the upper hand. The department spends one day of the “reality based training” exercises by practicing defensive fighting tactics, or how to cover and block to protect themselves during physical fights.
“It’s a safe location to make mistakes, we can correct mistakes,” said DeFrates.
When it comes to the use of deadly force, officers are still using interactive video systems as part of their training. However, what’s likely one of the most critical new training scenarios involves de-escalation.
Each officer is required to take part in a new life-like scenario that puts them face-to-face with a man who’s mentally distraught and threatening to harm himself or anyone who goes near him.
During the scenario that KRQE News 13 observed, the man only gave small clues about why he was upset. The role-playing officer was required to listen to clues from the suspect, respond with questions, request information from dispatchers, and give commands and information to the suspect to ultimate diffuse the situation.
Instructors act as both dispatchers and coaches. As a dispatcher, they’re giving information about the suspect. As coaches, instructors are pausing the scene, offering corrective actions to any officer behavior or decisions that need adjustments.
“You may be getting sucked into this conversation, but the problem here… may be that your partner may be forced… to use force, if he keeps getting closer,” said Mick Rael, an APD officer who also works with officers in the mental crisis scenario.
“I need you to recognize the danger because of the proximity, and let him know that he needs to back up,” said Rael.
KRQE News 13 watched seven-year APD Officer Ramiro Garza undergo the training.
“It’s very challenging,” said Garza. “We’ve had training in the past, but nothing I think, as far as to this caliber.”
Garza says he sees the training’s intensity as a benefit.
“You’re taking in the fact that this guy, you’re not sure of his mindset at that moment in time, and you’re also having to, you know, you can’t jeopardize officer safety, but you also have to keep in tune with what information is coming across the radio, which is very difficult at time, and you may miss some things as well,” said Garza.
Is the new policy and training effort working?
The question many are wondering is whether or not APD’s new training techniques are working or if they’ll work in the long run. While many haven’t had a chance to see the training first hand, some civil rights groups, like the ACLU, say the training is encouraging to hear about.
“Absolutely, those are the two things that I think we’re most looking for would be the use, increased use of reality based scenarios, so that officers get conditioned to the kinds of reflects they should have in certain circumstances, and also an emphasis on de-escalation,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico.
Simonson says he’s also encouraged by APD’s new “use of force” standard operating procedure, however, he has some reservations, particularly about the use of the word “feasible” in respects to how officers should choose to use force.
“I think we are definitely concerned that this policy, as currently drafted, includes that word (feasible) so frequently that it may open up to much ambiguity around what officers are expected to actually do,” said Simonson.
Simonson says ultimately, if APD is going to change, officers will have to buy in to the new training and be held accountable if they don’t.
“I do think that this is the path toward reforming use of force inside the department, I do think the department is doing exactly what it needs to do,” said Simonson.
APD Officer Ramiro Garza says he believes that what officers are learning now is being taken to heart.
“Most people here, I believe that they want to help… they want to help the citizens, they want to give back to the community,” said Garza. “That’s one thing I do pride myself on… is doing the best that we can and that I can.”