NM official defends changes to use of force training
The new curriculum — released last Monday after pressure from community members and the media — shows that the firearms training block was cut by 11 hours
By Nicole Perez
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Police cadets are receiving more scenario-based, live-fire shooting training and being taught to make use-of-force decisions based on case law, according to the recently released New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy curriculum and lesson plans.
Academy Director Jack Jones said those are some of a few, limited changes made to the curriculum when it was pared down from 22 to 16 weeks in December, a change the academy board had been discussing for months.
"We have not changed the core curriculum of the academy; we've just reduced the number of hours," Jones said in a recent interview. "All of the sheriffs and chiefs of police I met with wanted the 16-week curriculum. They saw what the curriculum was, they agreed with what the curriculum was, and it was presented to the board."
However small the changes, some community members are still concerned over the changes to the use-of-force policy and live-shooting training.
"The changes that he put through in December are controversial changes," said Chris Mechels, a Santa Fe resident who brought some of his concerns to the board at a February meeting. "I think we are going to end up coming out with some of the most violent officers we've had in a while."
The state Law Enforcement Academy trains officers only for those departments that don't have their own academies. But every other law enforcement academy in the state, including the Albuquerque Police Department's, must include the state academy's basic training, although they can expand on it which many do, according to meeting minutes from the law enforcement academy board.
APD spokesman Simon Drobik said Sunday that the APD academy will re-evaluate its training in light of the changes, and said cuts are possible.
"There may be some minor reduction in the total length of the APD basic police training package as redundancies are eliminated and efficiencies are gained," Drobik wrote in an email. "However, preliminary analyses indicate reductions, if any, will amount to little more than a week or two."
Both the Albuquerque Police Department and State Police have faced scrutiny for their recent use of force. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether APD has a "pattern or practice" of violating civil rights through its officers' use of force.
Mechels, who disagrees with how the curriculum was implemented, said the controversial Jeanette Anaya shooting in Santa Fe sparked his interest in how law enforcement officers are trained. Anaya was shot and killed by a New Mexico State Police officer after a vehicle chase in November. Police said Anaya was backing up aggressively toward the officer, but officer Oliver Wilson appears to fire most of the 16 shots as Anaya was driving away.
Jones defended his training, saying officers need to be under the pressure of live fire situations to know how to defuse them.
"I believe in live fire. Live fire is what gives officers the confidence in their ability to assess a situation and make a determination," Jones said. "If they've never been in that situation, if they've never seen it, they don't know their capability. What (cadets) do is they over-react, and react sooner, than they would if they were trained in live fire situations."
The new curriculum — released last Monday after pressure from community members and the media — shows that the firearms training block was cut by 11 hours, but due to larger cuts in other blocks it takes up slightly more of the now 657-hour curriculum than before. Jones said those 11 hours were displaced to other areas of the curriculum, so the amount of shooting has remained the same. The lesson plans are still drafts because the board hasn't approved them, Jones said, despite the fact that class 187 is being taught with them.
The curriculum also dumps the reactive control model, a commonly used model that tells officers they can only use certain types of force depending on what the suspect does. Jones said cadets will rely on case law — specifically Graham v. Connor, which states that officers must use an "objective reasonableness" standard when determining their use of force.
"Officers don't have to use lower levels of force when a reasonable officer can see that if the lower level of force failed, the consequences would be great bodily harm or death to the officer or public," reads an explanation of the case in the curriculum.
But Jones said it works the other way, too — if a suspect pulls out a knife, the officer must evaluate how much distance there is between them and other environmental factors before determining whether to use force, whereas the reactive control model says force can automatically be used in that situation.
"The reactive control model can get to what deadly force is, but it can't tell you what minimum force is to subdue a subject, what models do is put that police officer in a box," Jones said. "It must be stressed that the use of force (based on case law) is not left to the unfettered discretion of the officers, this is not a subjective determination, the use of force must be objectively reasonable."
But Mechels said basing use-of-force decisions on case law could confuse the cadet.
"The reason the reactive control model came into being was to try to simplify complex reasoning," he said. "If you look at the case law, it's pretty tortured reasoning, these standards are not at all obvious."
Jones told the Journal he also reworked the officer survival training, adding "commonly practiced and taught" material such as the "warrior mindset" he says is necessary for the officer to survive an attack.
"When faced with violent physical assault, your life depends on reaction without hesitation," reads the officer survival lesson plan.
"There is no time to ponder because to ponder is to possibly die. Your response must not be fear but aggressiveness."
Parts of the officer survival, patrol procedures and mechanics of arrest, restraint and control lesson plans are redacted.
The new curriculum makes cuts across the board, reducing blocks such as "physical and emotional readiness," "principles of criminal investigation" and "motor vehicle law enforcement." But the largest cuts come from a block titled "patrol procedures and operations," from which more than 40 hours were slashed.
"He eliminated things like patrolling and community relations, which would seem to be important for a municipality," Mechels said. "That's all the stuff that got really downsized. It seems like all his changes are totally inappropriate for Santa Fe and done in isolation."
But Jones said community policing is embedded within every block, which is why it doesn't have to have its own.
"Community policing was 18 hours in our old curriculum, but community policing is in there from the day they get there to the day they leave," Jones said. "All we did was reduce the amount of time we're talking about community policing."
During the process of making these changes, the Law Enforcement Academy Board took the curriculum out of the rules-making process, giving Jones the authority to present curriculum changes to the board for approval without going through what board members called a "cumbersome" rule-changing process. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government raised concern that public comment could be reduced because the opportunity for public input on those specific changes won't be required.
"I want everyone to know what we're doing. I am excited about what we do, because I think it is the right thing for the citizens of New Mexico and for our officers," Jones said.
The curriculum was posted online last week after a board rule mandating it be posted in December.
Copyright 2014 the Albuquerque Journal