By Joseph Kolb
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department cited the Albuquerque Police Department on Thursday for engaging in what federal civil rights investigators call a pattern of excessive force, some of it deadly, against residents of New Mexico's largest city.
A 46-page report capped an 18-month inquiry by the Justice Department following public complaints over a string of police-involved shootings in recent years, many fatal, and what critics have called heavy-handed use of stun guns by Albuquerque officers.
The investigation of Albuquerque's police by the Justice Department's civil rights division marked the latest of more than a dozen such probes of local law enforcement agencies across the country.
"We have reasonable cause to believe that officers of the Albuquerque Police Department engage in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including unreasonably deadly force," the Justice Department said in a statement, adding that such force was a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The Justice Department found that police too often resorted to deadly force against individuals who turned out to be unarmed or otherwise posed little or no threat. The problem stems from insufficient oversight, inadequate training and ineffective policies, the report said.
It cited 20 fatal officer-involved shootings documented from 2009 to 2012 and concluded that a majority were unconstitutional.
It also said officers frequently became overly aggressive in carrying out their duties, using unnecessary physical force and escalating confrontations to the point where deadly force was more likely.
Besides an excessive reliance on their firearms, Albuquerque police were found to overuse electronic stun guns, often against people who were merely uncooperative, passively resisting or were unable to obey police orders due to mental problems.
In one case cited by the report, police fired stun gun shots at a man who had poured gasoline on himself, and the electric current set the man ablaze before another officer managed to douse the flames.
The report cited another case in which a U.S. veteran of the Iraq war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder was shot dead by police in an incident that recently led to a $10 million civil judgment against the city.
It recommended dozens of reforms including more training, especially in dealing with the mentally ill, more rigorous internal police investigations, a stronger civilian complaint process, improved community oversight and more stringent selection protocols for new recruits.
"As difficult as some of the findings were, and some were very difficult, these are achievable goals," Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry told a news conference. Police Chief Gorden Eden said he would meet later with command staff to begin implementing the changes.
(Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Writing Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)