Susan Montoya Bryan/AP

Justice Department: Albuquerque police use of force is unconstitutional

Report says police in New Mexico capital 'too frequently' use force against the mentally ill and people in crisis

A U.S. Justice Department report said Thursday that Albuquerque police "too frequently" use excessive force against people who pose a minimal threat, and that officers who do so are in breach of the Constitution.

The report comes after the New Mexican capital’s police last month fatally shot James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man armed with a knife.

Boyd's death — captured on video and widely circulated on the Internet — was the Albuquerque Police Department's second fatal shooting in two weeks. It prompted a demonstration by hundreds of people who blocked traffic in the city on March 30. The same day, hacktivist group Anonymous took down the APD's website for hours.

The incidents brought the department under a wave of scrutiny, but the Justice Department investigation was launched in November 2012, when its Civil Rights Division and New Mexico federal Attorney's Office began a probe of officer-involved shootings that resulted in fatalities between 2009 and 2012.

The department found that APD officers "too frequently" fatally injure people posing a minimal threat, said Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.

In a phone conference with reporters, Samuels also said the APD reportedly uses "less lethal force" on those "who are passively resisting, non-threatening, observably unable to comply with orders or pose only a minimal threat to officers."

The department further reported that APD officers "too frequently" use force against the mentally ill and people in crisis.

For example, the department's report showed that one officer in 2010 used a Taser on a 75-year-old man who used a cane to walk. Also in 2010, an officer fired a Taser at a man who had been in a car accident and was convulsing in his car. The officer reportedly determined the man had been "non-compliant."

“We are very concerned by the results of our investigation and look forward to working with the City of Albuquerque to develop a set of robust and durable reforms,” Samuels said.

In response to the report, the department said it was taking several broad remedial steps including more training and measures to ensure accountability and transparency to the community.

Today’s groundbreaking announcement marks a critical milestone in addressing problems that have plagued our community and the Albuquerque Police Department for years,” said Damon Martinez, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico. 

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry told reporters on Thursday that he agrees the report is a milestone, and that he is prepared to face the challenges ahead to improve his city's law enforcement, however long it may take.

"As difficult as the findings are, and we recognize that they are difficult,” Berry said. “The good news is that this is an achievable goal."

APD officers have been involved in 37 shootings, 23 of them fatal, since 2010. There is no national record of how many times police departments throughout the United States use deadly force, but according to Micah McCoy with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s rate of deadly force rivals that of New York City. New York City is 15 times larger by population than Albuquerque.

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