ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The Albuquerque mayor's hiring of a New Jersey law enforcement veteran accused of excessive force in a more than decade-old lawsuit was met Friday with strong criticism among New Mexico police reform advocates.
The announcement a day earlier of Leonard Nerbetski's appointment as a civilian manager of Albuquerque's Real-Time Crime Center — a unit that includes dispatchers and crime analysts — comes as the local police department carries out a yearslong, court-mandated effort to reform how officers use force.
In a New Jersey lawsuit that was later settled with the state admitting no wrongdoing, Nerbetski was named as one of two state police troopers accused of accosting a pair of law students during a 1996 traffic stop. A woman in the car's passenger's seat said Nerbetski had twisted her arm, slammed her head against the vehicle and put a gun to her head.
Nerbetski has not returned a voicemail seeking comment at a number listed for him in New Jersey. An Albuquerque police spokesman said Friday that Nerbetski had informed the department's leadership of the former lawsuit when he was interviewed.
At a news conference, Mayor Tim Keller said Friday that Nerbetski was hired for his crime-analysis expertise, and that members of a court-appointed team tasked with monitoring Albuquerque's reforms recommended him. James Ginger, who leads the Albuquerque police monitoring team, also had overseen a similar court-mandated reform process involving the New Jersey State Police.
"His expertise is obviously why we hired him," Keller said of Nerbetski.
The department also took into account several other factors in Nerbetski's hiring, including that he has not been disciplined during his 25 years in law enforcement, Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.
Still, the department is "conducting additional due-diligence" in further reviewing the lawsuit after it resurfaced. The Associated Press reported on the allegations in the lawsuit Thursday after the announcement of Nerbetski's appointment.
Albuquerque reform advocates said his hire was concerning for them.
"In order to change APD's culture of aggression, the department needs strong leadership committed to working with the community, not against it," said Sarah Guerrero, a spokeswoman for APD Forward. "It's alarming that the city would elevate someone with serious allegations of racial profiling and excessive force to such a prominent leadership position within the police department at a moment when the community's trust is so fragile."
A coalition of nonprofits and advocates, APD Forward was formed in 2014 in response to community outcry over shootings by Albuquerque police. A federal investigation conducted that same year in response to the shootings found a "culture of aggression" among Albuquerque police — a finding that resulted in the city agreeing to sweeping policy changes.
For Laila Maher, the woman who accused Nerbetski of pulling a gun on her, the memory of the traffic stop is still rattling. In a telephone interview, she told the AP on Thursday that to this day she becomes filled with anxiety when police pull her over for a routine stop.
According to the lawsuit, Feix Morka had been driving Maher's car in 1996 when they were stopped for speeding. As Morka attempted to show his license, the other trooper with Nerbetski grabbed Morka's collar and slammed his head on the steering wheel, then dragged him from the car, the suit claimed. Maher got out of the passenger's seat to see what was happening.
She said she hoped Nerbetski had since changed. Shannon Kennedy, an attorney who has won multimillion-dollar judgments on the behalf of families that filed lawsuits over fatal shootings by Albuquerque police, said city officials owe it to the community to have a transparent discussion about what happened during the 1996 traffic stop and how they are responding to concerns about it now.
"It's not enough to say that the decades have passed because the victims are still living with the consequences," Kennedy said. "There has to be some accountability that's transparent."