Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Another Punch To An Already Blackened Eye: National Magazine Digs Into Sordid APD Culture; Mayor Says He Won't Play Blame Game, Plus: Meet The New Boss At The ABQ Journal; Same As The Old Boss? 

Once again the national media has landed here with a big thud. This time it's the New Yorker magazine stringing together the numerous institutional failures that collectively have given us what we refer to as "the APD crisis." The article is compelling as it implicitly indicts those institutions and the major players in them. It lets the sweeping dysfunction speak for itself.

The article is pegged to the fatal police shooting of Christopher Torres--who battled schizophrenia--and the details of how that shooting fell through the cracks of justice. For over 8,000 words the "Letter From ABQ" marches on, with regular diversions into the nasty culture that overtook the department and that led to the calamity that has needlessly cost lives, shamed the city and arguably lengthened the economic downturn here.

For readers of a political bent it was Mayor Berry's continued public aloofness from the plight that was of interest and the cause for further exasperation. From the piece:

Mayor Berry. . . told me he hoped that the department, by implementing the required (Dept. of Justice) reforms, would make Albuquerque a model for the rest of the nation. He traced the number of fatal shootings to the lack of mental-health services in the city, but declined to speculate about other factors that had led the department to its current state. “I just don’t spend any of my time or energy worrying about who did what, why, and when,” he said. “The last thing I want to do as mayor is play the blame game.”

Does that sound like a chief executive who wants to solve problems? National business leaders--who Berry is courting to come here--might be perplexed.

Berry's foes were quick to pounce on that quote. One emailed:

Berry's quote is an admission that he refuses to hold people within his administration accountable for their actions, even when their actions are negligent. Berry should have spent some time figuring out who was doing what wrong at APD and why during his first term and just maybe a few lives could have been spared. All Berry did for nine months during the last election was play the "blame game", saying that APD's problems were the fault of the previous administration and he still plays the "blame game" to this day.

This was not a hit piece on Berry. Former Democratic ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez was not spared for his manic push to have APD achieve a staffing level of 1000 officers:

The department accepted officers from other police forces, even if they had been disciplined or fired, and it sometimes waived the psychological exam. Steve Tate, the director of training at the Albuquerque Police Academy, said that, after the hiring push, he noticed new cadets “exhibiting some characteristics that I thought were a little strange.” “They were not in charge of their emotions,” he told me. “People were breaking down into tears.”

And there was this national punch to our already blackened eye:

Gilbert Najar, the director of the police academy in Silver City, New Mexico, who worked for the Albuquerque Police Department for twenty-five years, told me that the department “did policing one way in the South Valley, where there were a lot of immigrant families and people of lower socioeconomic status, and we knew we could violate their rights. But we did not dare commit those tactics in the affluent neighborhoods, where we knew they would file complaints on us.”


The entire sordid, nasty (and deadly) culture that infected our APD is summarized in this paragraph quoting a former officer:

Morrison said that officers were socialized to be cynical about civilians. “We’re taught to almost dehumanize them,” she said. “It just got to the point where it’s, like, they’re a piece of shit. We don’t care if they raped a baby or were speeding in traffic—everybody’s a piece of shit.” Early in her career, she was often injured, because she fought with people while arresting them. Then she took a forty-hour course offered by the department in crisis-intervention training. . . She never got injured on duty again. She became a senior instructor in the class, but it was held in low regard by many of her colleagues. By 2007, fewer than thirty officers were taking the course each year.

The systemic rot revealed in that recounting can only exist when a community at large refuses to engage in what the mayor terms the "blame game" but in reality is the "accountability game."

Reader Rick Allan says he was blown away by the article:

One would think the entire political and civic establishment in this state would cry out in pain, anguish, embarrassment, and outrage at this ongoing unspeakable stain caused by the APD and all those complicit with sustaining it. I don't think I've read a more devastating piece on a public institution so out of control in every imaginable way. Maybe Mayor Berry will be less likely in the future to be a featured talking head for Republican mayors on subjects having to do with such subjects as how well some cities are doing in innovation and economic development. I think they need to go looking elsewhere. I would also think the Department of Justice needs to reevaluate its "pussyfooting around" approach before it becomes complicit and part of the problem.

Mayor Berry says he doesn't want to know the "who, why and when" of this sad saga. He must be the only fella who puts the book down when the killer is about to be revealed.


William Lang
A new publisher for the ABQ Journal does not appear to foretell a change in its journalistic direction. The paper announced that William Lang, president and CEO since 2012, will now be publisher, taking over from his brother Tom who held the title since 1971. The paper did not explain the reason for the change. Insiders say Tom Lang has battled health problems in recent years.

There are few bright spots for newspapers these days, but the new publisher found one:

We continue to evolve with the times and the technology. At the same time we have continued to improve the graphic look and content of our print products, we have upgraded our digital products. That has resulted in significant growth in our traffic with more than 7 million unique visitors last year and more than 7 million page views in a single month.

The problem, of course, is all those page views don't make up for the tremendous loss of revenue the paper has suffered--along with most newspapers--as print ads continue to vanish, along with print subscribers. If the Journal, owned by the Lang family since 1926, is making a significant profit as a stand-alone enterprise and not being subsidized by the company's ample real estate interests, it would surprise most everyone.

Back on the journalistic side, the current editor appears to have quite a long leash with the Langs--much longer than his predecessors--and has taken the paper markedly to the conservative side. But the widespread frustration with that is expressed not only over the paper's obvious ideology but more seriously about its coverage of actual news.

The lengthy New Yorker piece, for example, strings together the stunning institutional failure ABQ has experienced in the fatal police shootings. The Journal will argue--as one of its editors did when the National Journal scooped it on the power of Governor Martinez's political adviser Jay McCleskey--that they have covered the story. Maybe. . .

It has been a Republican governor and Republican mayor who the Journal heartily and repeatedly endorse on its editorial pages who have benefited from the Journal's argument that it has covered the basic facts, even if it has not offered the perspective, context and analysis that has the national media drooling when they come here. It is this bifurcation in the journalism that the public is reading that has put the Journal's credibility on the line.

It's always muddy water when a blogger takes a critical look at the local newspaper but we don't have an axe to grind. We've praised the paper for its investigative reports and its unabashed championing of government openness that has served the state well. We often admire its coverage. But now seems the right time for the new publisher to make the Journal itself more open to new ideas and perspectives and more relevant to a wide swath of the community that sees in its pages little reflection of itself.


It was state Rep. Rudy Martinez who John Zimmerman defeated in the November election. In our first draft Monday we had an incorrect name.

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