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Albuquerque Residents Feel Little Has Changed Since Police Reform Began


At least nine U.S. police departments are reforming themselves under the watch of the U.S. Justice Department. We're going to take a closer look at one of them, the police department in Albuquerque, N.M. The U.S. Department of Justice found a pattern of excessive force there nearly two years ago. Since then, the Albuquerque Police Department has agreed to address everything from its use of force to community outreach, more than 250 provisions in all. NPR's Nathan Rott went to Albuquerque to see what if anything has changed.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: When the Justice Department came down on the Albuquerque Police Department a couple of years ago, most of the incidents they investigated involved police and people who were suffering from mental illness or homelessness. So if you want to get a sense of whether or not the relationship between those groups and the police have changed, St. Martin's Hospitality Center, a homeless shelter and therapy center near downtown is a good place to start.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nothing's changed. I'll tell you that much right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It hasn't changed, and it hasn't improved.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's still the Wild West, guys. It's still the Wild West.

ROTT: Most of the folks here don't want to use their names for fear of retaliation. Chris Peguero is an exception.

CHRIS PEGUERO: All their protocol they say they changed, it's probably inside the department, but not out here on the streets.

ROTT: Now, things have improved in some ways. Notably, the city says the number of officer-involved shootings in Albuquerque has dropped since the reform process started back in 2014.

DANNY WHATLEY: Because the negative things that those folks in our community have experienced, they're not going to believe it.

ROTT: This is Danny Whatley, the director of a day shelter a few blocks away from St. Martin's. He interacts with a lot of the people you just heard, and he understands their frustrations. But he also understands the other side.

WHATLEY: I was a police officer for nine years and 23 years with the United States Marshals Service.

ROTT: So he knows that some shootings are justified and that the process of reforming the police department isn't easy.

WHATLEY: I think the city initially wanted to just check boxes.

ROTT: Change some policies, do some paperwork and just get the reform process over with. Whatley says he thinks the Albuquerque Police Department has come around since, and that they are now taking the process seriously. But there are still some concerns.

As part of the reform process, the federal government appoints an independent monitor, someone who keeps tabs on the department's progress and then reports that progress to an overseeing judge. At his last report in front of a district judge in downtown Albuquerque, the independent monitor noted that to date the Albuquerque Police Department has achieved what he calls operational compliance with just eight of 277 required reforms, about 3 percent of them.

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: The other thing that you need to keep in mind with that is that the report also said we've met all of the deadlines that have come so far.

ROTT: Jessica Hernandez is the Albuquerque city attorney and is representing the police department in court. The police department itself did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Hernandez says the first policy changes they made were big ones. They took time. She dismisses the idea that the city and police didn't take the reform process seriously at first.

HERNANDEZ: The willingness is definitely there. We're just dealing with sort of the growing pains.

ROTT: Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association agrees with that sentiment. He says that police officers themselves are accepting of the change, but it's a huge process.

SHAUN WILLOUGHBY: It's frustrating for the public because they don't understand the process in its totality.

ROTT: And how difficult it can be in practice to retrain 821 sworn officers on use of force policies and de-escalation techniques.

WILLOUGHBY: We're dealing with human beings that have been operating under a certain set of rules. And now we're reforming those policies, and we're retraining.

ROTT: And doing that takes time. Under the current timeline, the Albuquerque Police Department has until mid-November to be in substantial compliance with their settlement agreement. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.