As the New Mexico State Police and the Albuquerque Police Department have come under scrutiny in recent months for a rash of officer-involved shootings, the man who sets the tone for training police recruits in the state has instituted a curriculum that puts less restraint on officers in deciding when to use deadly force.
“Evil has come to the state of New Mexico, evil has come to the Southwest, evil has come to the United States,” said Jack Jones, director of the Law Enforcement Academy, when asked about the new approach.
The academy trains recruits for police departments across the state. Some agencies, such as the state police and the Albuquerque department, have their own training programs, but the basic training courses are established by Jones’ academy, according to the Department of Public Safety’s deputy secretary, Patrick Mooney.
In September, the state’s eight-member Law Enforcement Academy Board, which is appointed by the governor and chaired by the attorney general, voted unanimously to change the New Mexico Administrative Code to give complete control over the curriculum to Jones.
Greg Williams, an Albuquerque attorney and president-elect of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said before the board voted on the change, it had a process that included public involvement.
“What they did was to change the process so that the public could not be involved,” he said.
But Jones, arguing for more control over academy training, said changing anything from fitness requirements to firearms training could take nine months.
“If there is something happening that is new technology that bad guys are using, that evil is using, we need to be able to make that change and be able to make those changes in our academy,” he told the board in June.
Since September, Jones has shortened the cadet training from 22 weeks to 16 weeks, instituted a physical-fitness entrance exam that is the same for men and women and applicants of all ages, and added more training exercises, including live-fire vehicle stops. These changes were necessary to prepare new police officers to work in a more dangerous world, he said.
The latest class got underway Jan. 20.
Some former police officials and criminologists question the wisdom of having one person in charge of the academy’s curriculum, as well as the soundness of some of the tactics Jones is teaching the cadets.
“It would be out of the ordinary for one person to write [the curriculum] without other people having input,” said Thomas J. Aveni, director of the Police Policy Studies Council, a New Hampshire-based group that studies use of force by law enforcement.
And Phillip Gallegos, a former academy instructor, called the rule change a “dangerous precedent.”
“Now you have one person that is making the selection, and who is to say that person knows what a curriculum is supposed to be like,” Gallegos said.
Gallegos said the academy fired him in July for insubordination after he refused to teach new cadets some of the firearms training Jones wanted to implement. The academy confirmed Gallegos was fired but declined to discuss the reasons.
According to Gallegos, “The statement that he made to us [instructors] in a [January 2013] meeting was, ‘No, I want you guys teaching these guys how to make a car stop with a bullet.” Gallegos said, “This is the thing — why are you shooting at a car? You should be shooting at the individual that is shooting at you.”
New Mexico made national headlines when a state police officer shot at a van full of children near Taos after the driver fled during a traffic stop in October. In November, a different state police officer shot and killed a Santa Fe woman after a high-speed chase, firing into her vehicle 16 times as she tried to flee. The second shooting was one of three fatal shootings involving state police in the course of a month.
The Albuquerque Police Department, meanwhile, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice to determine if officers use unreasonable deadly force in encounters with suspects. Albuquerque officers fatally shot 22 people from 2010 through 2013, and wounded another 13.
Gallegos said more than 20 years ago, when he went through the academy, cadets were not taught to shoot at vehicles in order to stop them. Ballistics training was about the impact of using various firearms and ammunition.
Jones, a retired Army colonel, has more than 30 years of military experience and worked as a New Mexico State Police officer for 10 years. He joined the academy as deputy director in January 2013. Gallegos said he was told at that time that Jones would be in charge of training. The board promoted Jones to director in June.
Jones said he wouldn’t comment on the allegations made by Gallegos. But he said the purpose of some of the shooting techniques taught at the academy is to help cadets learn what happens when an officer shoots at a vehicle — not to stop cars.
“We want them to see that if there’s a threat that’s inside a vehicle and they need to shoot at it, what happens to that round,” he said. “They’re wearing a gun and a badge protecting you [the public] against the violence. Don’t you think they should be prepared for the most violent encounter that they can come up against?”
The New Mexican filed a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act for a copy the academy’s new curriculum, but Jones said he doesn’t plan to release it because criminals could use the tactics taught to cadets against them.
“I’ll burn them before you get them,” he told The New Mexican.
Williams said because of the number of officer-involved shootings, the public has the right to know how police are being trained. To be lawfully withheld, the documents have to be related to an ongoing criminal investigation or meet some other exception.
Phil Sisneros, a spokesman for Attorney General Gary King, suggested filing an Inspection of Public Records Act complaint with his office to determine if the documents related to academy training must be released under the law.
The academy schedule includes 640 hours of training. Among them: 52 hours for basic firearms training, including training in live-fire vehicle stops; 12 hours in use-of-force techniques; and eight hours of courses on deadly-force decisions.
Jeff G. Vick, a former state police officer and trainer who retired from the force in 2005, said having more live-fire training could be a good thing, if it’s taught properly.
“If there’s a technique or a method that they should follow, then it sure wouldn’t hurt to teach your guys that,” Vick said. “As long as you make sure that they understand when, and when not, to do it.”
Jones said the shorter training period cuts redundancy. He also defended the new gender- and age-neutral fitness exam. He said it is fairer than the old exam, which set higher standards for younger males than for older females.
Aveni, a former police trainer, said he agreed with Jones’ physical fitness standards because real-life crime scenarios are not gender or age neutral.
Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which has a program to increase the number of women in law enforcement, argued, however, that academies with gender-neutral physical admission requirements are subtly excluding woman.
“Whenever you’re focusing on upper-body strength, you’re usually dealing with a test that has an adverse impact on women applicants,” she said after reading over the new physical requirements to enter the academy in Santa Fe.
Among them, a candidate must be able to do 31 sit-ups and 29 push-ups in no more than a minute.
Spillar agreed that a good officer should be physically fit in order to do the job, but she said it’s also important to have good verbal communication skills in dealing with suspects. “The guys who are into all this weightlifting all too often resort to physical interaction with a suspect before they have exhausted the verbal interaction,” she said.
Jones’ new curriculum teaches recruits they have more leeway to use force when pursuing a suspect than previous training under an older model.
Jones said he is now basing his training in use-of-force techniques on a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case titled Tennessee v. Garner. The ruling says a police officer can use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect if the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect might do serious physical injury or kill an officer or another person.
The model Jones is dumping, called the Reactive Control Model, has been used by police agencies around the country. But Jones said it is too restrictive. For example, he said, the model says if an unarmed suspect attempts to attack an officer, the officer can use a baton in self-defense.
“When I went to high school, two people would have a fistfight, and it would be over,” Jones said. “Today in high school, two people have a fistfight and then somebody comes to the guy’s house the next day and shoots him. … You have to be prepared for the violence.”
Aveni said most law enforcement academies have dropped the Reactive Control Model, but he doesn’t believe the case law is a sufficient base for an entire use-of-force curriculum.
The Law Enforcement Academy Board, however, is backing Jones. At a meeting Monday, board Vice Chairman Nate Korn lauded his expertise and what he has done to train officers.
“We arguably have the best director in our academy’s history,” Korn said.
Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 986-3062 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ujohnnyg.