ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico activists have ramped up their call for a Justice Department probe into Albuquerque police after officers shot and killed two men last week, bringing the total of such shootings to 18 in just over two years.
They aren't alone in demanding federal investigations into local authorities in the wake of recent high-profile police shootings.
Civil rights activists in several cities across the nation — from Las Vegas to Omaha, Neb. — also have called for U.S. Department of Justice intervention, saying local police are using excessive and deadly force far too often.
In Albuquerque, police have been involved in 23 shootings since January 2010, with 18 ending in fatalities. Critics say those numbers are far too high for a city of 550,000 and link the deaths to a practice of union payments to officers involved in such shootings, calling the union program a "bounty."
The Albuquerque Police Department says the number of deadly shootings has been dropping since it instituted more than 40 recommendations from two outside consulting groups last year.
And the police union defends the payments, saying the checks for up to $500 help cover expenses for officers and their families "to find a place to have some privacy and time to decompress outside the Albuquerque area."
Albuquerque police were involved in 14 shootings, nine fatal, in 2010. There were six police shootings last year, all fatal. And there have been three fatal police shootings so far this year.
By contrast, New York City police fatally shot eight people and injured 16 in 2010. The population of New York is about 8 million.
A DOJ spokeswoman said Monday that her office is conducting a preliminary review of the Albuquerque shootings, but no decision has been made regarding a formal investigation.
Mike Garcia, whose 22-year-old son, Alan, was shot and killed by Albuquerque police last year after authorities said he was acting erratically and firing a rifle, said he was hopeful that federal authorities would make an announcement soon.
"There has been so much publicity around Albuquerque, I think there is no way they can ignore it anymore," he said.
Community leaders in San Bernardino, Calif., and Austin, Texas, also are asking for federal investigations into police practices.
Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and the author of more than a dozen books on police oversight, said factors vary on what would prompt federal officials to launch an investigation.
"But that's a lot of shootings for Albuquerque," said Walker, who co-authored a 1997 report on Albuquerque police following a string of shootings.
Any Justice Department probe will center on the culture of the department and the level of supervision of officers, Walker said.
"A lot of times, it's not about a case of rotten apples," he said. "It's a case of a rotten barrel."
Walker said if Albuquerque community leaders should examine activist actions in Miami and Portland, Ore., that persuaded federal officials to start investigations last year.
Miami police shot and killed eight people in 16 months. And Portland officers fatally shot five people in 18 months. Both of the investigations are ongoing.
Albuquerque police last year instituted several changes, including college or military service requirements for all new cadets and automatic independent reviews for all officer-involved shootings.
Police Chief Ray Schultz credited the changes with a reduction in the number of police shootings. "As soon as we saw an upward trend in 2010, we responded," Schultz said.
Schultz said his department's police shooting review team looks at each incident to determine whether there also should be changes in policy, training or equipment.
"We never sit back and say, 'that's the cost of doing business,'" said Schultz. "We try to look at the root causes and address them."
Schultz said it was unfair to compare cities on officer-involved shootings since each deals with different circumstances, economies and department reactions.
Still, Jewel Hall, an Albuquerque civil rights leader, said activists are planning to increase pressure on elected officials. Activists plan to speak out at the next Albuquerque City Council meeting and a group is organizing a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with DOJ officials.
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A civil Justice Department probe could result in federal officials suing to force a department to reform various policies and police behavior, Walker said. It could also result new leadership, he added.
A criminal DOJ investigation could result in charges against officers for civil rights violations.
Kenneth Ellis Jr., whose 25-year-old son Kenneth Ellis III was shot and killed by police in 2010, said the federal probes in Miami and Portland tells him that Albuquerque is "long overdue" for an investigation by federal authorities.
"How can they not be here?" Ellis said. "We've had so many more incidents."
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