By Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The head of Albuquerque's embattled police department says he's retiring after an eight-year tenure marred by a spike in fatal police shootings and excessive force cases that critics blamed on a departmental culture that fostered brutality.
Chief Ray Schultz's announcement on Friday comes five months after the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation that was spurred by protests, lawsuits and demands for a wide-scale change.
It came the same day jurors awarded more than $10 million to the family of an Iraq War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who was killed by an Albuquerque police officer during a 2010 standoff at a convenience store.
The city has seen a string of officer-involved shootings — 18 of them fatal — since 2010. The department also has been plagued by a number of high-profile cases alleging excessive force, including some cases caught on video. And several officers have been reprimanded for controversial social media postings, including one by an officer involved in a fatal shooting who described his occupation as "human waste disposal."
This week, City Council President Dan Lewis joined the call for change, saying the department's reputation had been tarnished. On Friday, Lewis said Schultz made a courageous decision and this marks a critical time in the department's history.
"Despite all that the department and city have been through, I believe he is turning to the next chief a better department," Lewis said.
Jewel Hall, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center Board and a vocal critic of the department, was pleased to hear of Schultz's impending retirement. She and other advocates had pushed for the federal inquiry into the department's practices and have long called for his resignation as necessary to effect a change in department culture.
"That goes to show you, when people continue to ask for justice and for answers, things will change," Hall said.
Michael Gomez, whose son Alan was shot by police in 2011 while carrying a plastic spoon, said in an email that the "victims' families are overjoyed with the news. ... The pressure from `WE THE PEOPLE' has been felt."
In a letter sent to the city's chief administrative officer Wednesday, Schultz said he plans to retire sometime during the summer or fall. The letter was released Friday by the mayor's office and the Police Department.
The chief indicated that he had first proposed his retirement to city officials in January. He said he is now ready to go forward with the next chapter of his life and make more time for his family.
"I believe in the department and our city and as such know that a true leader knows when it is the proper time to step aside and let the next generation continue the mission," Schultz wrote in his letter.
Schultz has defended his record. He said this week in a statement to the Albuquerque Journal that he was proud of the work his officers do.
"All I can say is that I continue to work hard for the citizens of Albuquerque each and every day," he said. "I have dedicated most of my adult working life to the Albuquerque Police Department, often giving up personal and family time in order to meet the around the clock demands of being a police chief in a major metropolitan police department."
Albuquerque's chief is hired and fired by the mayor. In 2006, then-Mayor Martin Chavez, a Democrat, appointed Schultz as chief. Current Republican Mayor Richard Berry reappointed Schultz in 2009.
City officials and the police officers' union praised Schultz, saying crime rates have dropped and new public safety programs have been instituted.
Union president Greg Weber said the department is losing "one of the most innovative, forward thinking and hardworking police chiefs in the country. His ability to anticipate where the profession of law enforcement is going, how crime itself is evolving and his drive to give police better tools to combat crime is something we believe both citizens and officers will miss greatly."
Still, Weber characterized it as a "tumultuous time" for the department and said it's time for a new leader.
Schultz said he wants to keep working with federal investigators until his retirement.
As Berry's administration develops a transition plan for the department and begins planning the search for the city's next police chief, the mayor said maintaining public safety will be the priority.
Civil rights advocates said they are hopeful the city's reputation can be rebuilt with leadership changes in the department.
"New ideas, new philosophies, that's what we need," Hall said.
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press