What’s happened to Albuquerque? Part 3: Police trust

If there’s anything city residents need to hear about during this mayoral season it’s how the candidates plan to give Albuquerque a police force it can trust and admire, and is no longer afraid of?

How would a mayor accomplish that turnaround? I know many of us would like to learn in detail how that could be done.

Living in a city where one worries about the police going rogue, killing people, beating them up, drawing guns at routine traffic stops, and the like makes doing business and going about one’s daily life even harder than it already is.

For people of my generation, we expect the police to be good Scouts helping old folks across the street, getting us out of jams after the burglar has come to call, or catching speeders and scoff laws in our neighborhoods. We’d like to feel free to give them cookies and cold drinks, too. This all sounds hopelessly naïve and silly these days, but that is a dominant hope and expectation.

We don’t think of our police as having 27 officers involved in using their guns to shoot people, 17 of those times fatally, since January 2010.  It comes as a total stunner to many people when they read of officers, many of them, accused of beating people up.

And for the fiscally conservative of us, the burden of some $14 million on the city budget in police-related court settlements or judgments is just plain intolerable in an era of “austerity” where the city’s cultural institutions go ridiculously understaffed and poor kids can’t get the food they need.

The vast majority of us want a police force we can put our faith in, a police force we can work with and can respect. This is not an impossible dream.

I started covering the police as a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune in l966. Over the years, we’ve had a police rollercoaster of good times and bad. The bad times came when police culture broke down and demoralization, low pay, very dangerous work, and an attitude of arrogance and bullying took its toll.

Granted, the proliferation of guns in America, and of assault rifles, have everyone jumpy, including the police.  But this was true in the l960s too. Officers were vulnerable to being shot through the door of a vehicle at what seemed like a routine traffic stop. And the drug culture and its wild violence isn’t new to our era either. Drug fighting in the l960s was as dangerous then as it is now.

It’s almost trite but accurate to say that all of us have met and worked with many fine officers when we’ve needed them. It’s not possible to condemn or praise any police department in a blanket way.

But then is then and now is now.  Many officers still ascribe to a noble view of their role as the servants of the people and perform admirably. And we are grateful to them. Unhappily these days many, it seems, also do not. And we fear them. And it’s not just because of bad PR or news organizations doing their jobs by honest reporting.

Something has to change. And this mayoral election is the place to get change started.

We need to move in another direction – from paramilitary SWAT teams and helicopters and enormous fire power to cops on the beat, friends when you need help, people you know, admire and would like to help, if it was needed. 

With the U.S. Department of Justice scouring the city for details of police misconduct, what we do NOT need this election season is a whitewash, “what me worry” grinning denial of current problems.

What we DO need is a thoughtful public assessment of those problems.

Should we completely restructure the police academy and its curriculum? Do we need a higher pay and incentive structure?  Should we have much higher educational standards for admission to the academy? What combination of things will work? What will end the long suffered truth of “law enforcement in the Valley and police protection in the heights?”

It seems obvious that police culture must change and so must City Hall. We want our leaders to demand the right behavior from the people who wear the guns.  It’s just simply unacceptable to deny or finagle or squirm out of the reality that so many of us feel.

We need to know, well before October, what the candidates plan to do to heal the relationship between the police and the public in Albuquerque, and set us on the honorable path again.

This piece was written by:

V.B. Price's photo

V.B. Price

V.B. Price is editor and co-founder of New Mexico Mercury. He is the former editor of Century Magazine and New Mexico Magazine, former city editor of the New Mexico Independent, and long-time columnist for the late Albuquerque Tribune. His latest book is The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. He retired as the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at UNM Press in 2010. He has taught in the UNM Honors Program since l986.

Contact V.B. Price

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