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‘Ensuring public’s trust': N.M. PD’s spokesman emphasizes fast, transparent communications

Director of Communications Gilbert Gallegos says fast responses and consistency are priorities crucial for building trust with community members and the media

'Ensuring public's trust': APD spokesman helped shift communications strategy

“I think my ultimate goal with APD is to win that trust with the public,” Gallegos said. "... If we’re transparent but also consistent in doing that, nobody can question that we’re trying to hide something.”

Albuquerque Police Department via Facebook

By Gabrielle Porter
The Santa Fe New Mexican

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sign up for the Albuquerque Police Department’s media release list and you might be scarred — but you won’t be bored.

An update on a fatal motorcycle wreck the night before.

A notice that a missing man has been found.

An alert: Police shot and killed a person on the city’s West Side; a task force will be investigating.

There’s an arrest in a homicide earlier this year. An explanation details the high points of the investigation and the charges.

That’s a sampling of a few days worth of communication from New Mexico’s largest law enforcement agency. The department’s announcements come in with promptness and regularity, standing in stark contrast to the scarce communications of other law enforcement agencies in the state, including in the city and county of Santa Fe. Major incidents here, even some homicides, might not be disclosed to the public for days — or months.

The official behind most of APD’s emails, Director of Communications Gilbert Gallegos, says fast responses and consistency are priorities crucial for building trust with community members and the media — especially as the department weathers scandals.

APD has seen its share.

Frequent use of excessive force landed the agency in a yearslong federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice a decade ago, and there’s a current investigation into members of its DWI Unit.

“I think my ultimate goal with APD is to win that trust with the public,” Gallegos said. "... If we’re transparent but also consistent in doing that, nobody can question that we’re trying to hide something.”

‘Biggest leap of my career’

Gallegos, 55, doesn’t come from a policing background. He grew up in Albuquerque, attended the University of New Mexico and started a journalism career at the now-shuttered Albuquerque Tribune, writing about education and government. His only exposure to police reporting was during his first-year internship, when he occasionally pitched in on crime coverage.

“I did not like covering the police beat,” he said. “It just really wasn’t for me.”

In what he called the “biggest leap of my career,” Gallegos left news to do communications for Bill Richardson after he was elected to his first term as New Mexico’s governor in November 2002.

It was an exciting time, Gallegos said. Richardson’s interest in international diplomacy took him all over the world, for diplomatic missions, economic development and other business. Gallegos went twice to North Korea and twice to Cuba. He visited Israel and during a trip to Egypt participated in negotiations for the release of an Israeli soldier being held by Hamas.

It was the 2011 death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that derailed Gallegos’ run of working for Richardson — albeit in a roundabout way.

When Richardson left office, Gallegos followed him to help found the Richardson Center for Global Engagement in Santa Fe. The government of Norway planned to fund the center’s effort to organize a series of diplomatic meetings with North Korean leaders in Santa Fe, Oslo and Pyongyang. Then Kim Jong-il died, and those plans fell apart.

“The North Koreans just went dark on us,” Gallegos said. “Things were just in such disarray in North Korea.”

The Norway funding got put on hold, Gallegos said, and his salary stopped.

He had been hoping to stay out of politics at the time but ended up working for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham back when she was running for a U.S. House seat and then worked at her office in New Mexico after she won the election.

Gallegos was hired by Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller at the beginning of his term in 2017 — after an interview in which the former state senator brought up critical remarks Gallegos had made about him during a legislative tiff under the Richardson administration.

“That was the first thing he did,” Gallegos said, laughing.

Gallegos had applied for a job with the mayor’s communications department and told Keller he didn’t have any experience with APD, which was then under the federal consent decree and grappling with a poor relationship with the community.

“There were a lot of controversies going on,” Gallegos said. “I felt like their perception and public trust in APD was really at a low point.”

Keller offered him a job not on his own team, but as the head spokesman for APD. Initially reluctant, Gallegos eventually accepted, a decision he’s now glad he made.

‘Put it out right away’

Every law enforcement agency handles communications differently, often in proportion to its size and resources. But Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said transparency is crucial at all agencies, in part to let the public know whether everyone is receiving the same treatment.

“How do we know that, hypothetically, a mayor’s child isn’t getting off for a heinous crime when someone else’s child, who may not be as well connected, is being sent to jail?” she said.

Immediacy is also important in police communications, Majors said: “It does no one any good to find out 10 years later that a murder took place.”

Transparent communications, especially in the release of records and videos, can give the public a sense of trends and problems that could be addressed — and whether police themselves are operating under the law.

“That goes a long way to ensuring public’s trust,” Majors said.

Gallegos and others who help with communications at APD often issue multiple news releases every day. Gallegos said he’s notified by emergency dispatchers of major incidents and tries to get news out as quickly as possible. He said he considers that “best practice” for all law enforcement agencies, particularly when it comes to homicides and police shootings.

“They should announce there’s a homicide, as quickly as you can,” he said. “We do it every time, and then when there’s a delay in us doing it, we get criticized for that.”

Gallegos sends news releases about all major incidents in the city — fatal wrecks, SWAT situations and kidnappings.

A major shift in the department’s communications strategy since he stepped into the job is the way it handles police shootings.

Detectives investigating shootings by police tend to want to release as little information as possible. Gallegos said he understands that instinct — those shootings can be chaotic, and officials often initially have little information to share.

“What Chief [Harold Medina] and I learned is just there wasn’t a real reason to be so vague about it,” he said. “But we just decided, if we know it’s an officer-involved shooting, put it out right away.”

The first announcement might have sparse information. It is followed a few weeks later with a more thorough news conference.

Some of those practices are the result of the settlement agreement, but Gallegos also credits Medina for his support.

Scandals within the department and criticism have presented their own challenges.

APD is years into its consent degree with the Department of Justice, which came about after a federal investigation into officers’ use of excessive force amid a series of fatal police shootings. Recently, APD was rocked by an FBI investigation into allegations of bribery against officers in its DWI Unit. The department had been cooperating with the FBI , and several officers were placed on leave. Some have since resigned, and scores of DWI cases have been dropped.

Gallegos himself came under fire last year when APD’s official Twitter account responded to several critical tweets with abrasive responses, including, “Calling out your b.s. is public service.”

Gallegos acknowledged the exchanges with regular critics of both the department and Keller’s administration got to him.

“It affected me,” he said.

Police department leaders have “done a lot to uncover” problems in the DWI Unit and have been proactive about keeping the public informed, he said, adding he met with numerous reporters as information began emerging about the investigation.

But that doesn’t erase the hit to the department’s reputation.

“It’s like a black eye on APD,” he said. “Hopefully our openness and honesty with the media ... helps.”

Gallegos said he lives in fear of a school shooting or another major tragedy. He has a crisis communication plan for the department, which he’s always revising. But at the end of the day, he noted, all he can do is try to provide as much information as quickly as he can.

“What I can control,” he said, “are the communications we put out.”


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