The Albuquerque Police Department had a pretty rough year.
In March, two APD officers responded to a report that a mentally ill homeless man was illegally camping out in the wilderness. They arrived on the scene to find the man brandishing two pocket knives. They proceeded to shoot him, and then, for good measure, fired a few beanbag rounds into him.
The officers opened fire despite the fact that the man, James Boyd, was turning away from them as they started to shoot — as footage caught by one of the cops' helmet cameras showed. Boyd died the next morning.
The video was not a good look for the APD. It was just one case in a a series of incidents involving trigger-happy cops in the state, and protesters took to the streets of New Mexico's largest city rallying against police violence.
Police in riot gear met protesters with tear gas, Albuquerque's mayor called the scene "mayhem," and Anonymous hacked into the department's official website in revenge. The Department of Justice intervened, issued a scathing report on the APD's record, and promised an overhaul of the local department's practices.
Then, on August 9, a police officer in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager who was walking in the middle of the street. Neighbors emerged from their houses in shock and anger, and the APD lost its title as worst police department in the country to Ferguson, which is likely going to keep that reputation for a while.
The killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests that followed propelled police killings, racism, and impunity to the forefront of the national conversation, exposing the seams of a country still trying to heal itself after centuries of systemic racism.
It's not like the Ferguson police department was trying to be worse than Albuquerque — but, in the days that followed Brown's death, they definitely stole the scene. Their militarized officers poured into the suburb's streets with Humvees. Snipers were stationed on rooftops. The display led some observers come to the defense of the military — saying "don't call the police militarized, the military is better than this."
To be fair, the Ferguson police department — a 53-officer force with only three black officers in a town where 70 percent of the population is black — was not alone in its inadequacy. As their aggressive response to angry, grieving residents poured gasoline on the flames, escalating the situation into a full-on confrontation between protesters and police that would last months, other departments became involved. Officers from across the state arrived to police a stretch of gas stations and strip malls that had suddenly exploded into what one reporter called a "suburban Tahrir."
Most notably, the St. Louis County Police Department and the Missouri Highway Patrol were, at different points, put in charge of policing the protests. But across departments, cops in Ferguson regularly failed to wear nametags — as they were required to — or answer questions. The chain of command was hazy at best, and protesters and observes alike often had no idea who the officers pointing guns at them were.
My first night in Ferguson — August 13 — an officer yelling at me from behind a line of armored vehicles asked via loudspeaker if I wanted to get shot. I'm not sure what department he belonged to, just as I wasn't sure who the officers were that raided a McDonald's on West Florissant earlier that day, arresting two national correspondents and landing themselves in the headlines across the country. I also usually couldn't tell which officers stood behind the clouds of tear gas fired at anyone crossing police's path, so I'm going to give the Albuquerque award for worst police department in the country to what has come to be known in St. Louis as the "Unified Command" — a multi-force coalition of protest police.
In the days after Brown's death, nearly everything the St. Louis area police did made the protests bigger, the tensions worse, and the justice process more dubious.
They had a couple chances to get it right.
On the Thursday following Brown's death, Missouri governor Jay Nixon put state highway patrol Capt. Ron Johnson — a black man — in charge of policing the protests, promising a "different approach." That night's protest was huge, peaceful, and more like a massive block party than the "riots" of the days before. De-escalation seemed to have worked.
The morning after, the Ferguson police department released the name of the officer who killed Brown: Darren Wilson. But for reasons that remain a mystery, they also simultaneously released security camera footage that appeared to implicate Brown in a robbery on the day of his death.
Wilson likely didn't even know about the crime when he stopped Brown, and the DOJ had actually asked the Ferguson department not to release the video — which, predictably, shattered the short-lived peace.
Following some looting that night — which police did nothing to stop, even though they had been firing teargas at protesters just a couple hours earlier — Missouri officials declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and, shortly after, deployed the National Guard.
Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson sort of lied when he blamed the release of the video on FOIA requests from the media. The department did receive plenty of those — at least from us — but responded by charging thousands of dollars in fees for the release of information that, by law, must be made public. The police gave anyone looking for documents the runaround, made up easily refuted excuses, and even "lost" thousands of emails.
If the release of information was selective at best, the recording of it was plain disastrous.
Ferguson police never produced a use of force report of Brown's killing, and they only released a scant, belated, incident report after much pressure by civil rights groups.
There were more snafus: The department hired a PR consultant to fix its image who had both fabricated his credentials and been previously convicted of reckless homicide for the shooting and killing an unarmed man. In the following months, Ferguson and St. Louis police got called out by Amnesty International for human rights abuses, and got chided by a judge for making up an unconstitutional "five second rule" that forced peaceful protesters to move or get arrested. They also picked up a few lawsuits in the process, and were recently put under a temporary restraining order, forbidding them from using tear gas without first giving protesters ample notice and room to move. Michael Brown's parents and a group of protesters took their grievances against police straight to the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva.
They even managed to get into petty Twitter fights with the St. Louis Rams.
Ferguson made police militarization, lack of accountability and the deeply troubled relationship between law enforcement and mostly black communities urgent issues on our collective radar. But since August 9, plenty of police departments have taken their stabs at beating Ferguson to its title. Cleveland police "justified" the right of one of their rookie officers to shoot and kill a 12-year old holding a pellet gun in a playground, just seconds after arriving on the scene, and called public figures' call for justice "pathetic."
The NYPD — which knows a thing or two about the killings of unarmed black citizens — started the year with the hilariously misguided #myNYPD social media campaign and ended it with the non-indictment of a police officer whom hundreds of thousands of people watched suffocate Eric Garner to death with what looked awfully close to a chokehold. (They then said that Garner had it coming, and that his death was to blame on people's lack of respect for police.)
Ferguson's may go down as the worst police department of 2014, but the point of the Ferguson movement — and the reason why the protests that started there have struck such a nerve across the country — is that, as protesters have been writing on signs for months, "Ferguson is everywhere."
Albuquerque is not off the hook.