Albuquerque police hire in old excessive force case promoted
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The head of Albuquerque police’s Real-Time Crime Center, whose hiring in 2018 generated anger because of his role in a New Jersey excessive force lawsuit decades ago, has been promoted.
City records show that Leonard Nerbetski was recently promoted from his civilian status to police commander while he oversees a unit that includes dispatchers and crime analysts.
Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the department changed Nerbetski’s job to a sworn position because of the combination of managing crime data and analysis with support for field and investigative functions. Among those duties are heading up a center that responds “to violence related to protests and rallies,” Gallegos said.
Albuquerque police’s hiring of Nerbetski in 2018 came as the department worked through reforms on how its officers use force under a U.S. Justice Department settlement agreement.
In 1999, an Associated Press report named Nerbetski as one of two troopers accused of roughing up Laila Maher and Felix Morka, both women of color, during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. The lawsuit alleged Nerbetski twisted the arm of Maher, an Egypt-born woman who was in her 20s at the time, and held a gun to her head.
In a telephone interview in 2018, Maher told The AP that to this day, she becomes filled with anxiety when police pull her over for a routine stop.
While the New Jersey later admitted to no wrongdoing under the settlements, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that the traffic stop involving Nerbetski and the other trooper led to changes in how New Jersey State Police handle complaints of misconduct.
News of the promotion drew outrage from some Black Lives Matter demonstrators who feared that Nerbetski’s past would cloud his judgment on how to deal with peaceful protesters.
“His actions make it difficult for some of us to trust him,” said Arthur Bell, who led a peaceful march in Albuquerque on Sunday. “He should not be in any position where he’s monitoring protests.”
News of the promotion also came while Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and denounced the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white officer pressed his knee into his neck even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
In a statement, Keller said the city held many forums at City Hall and in the International District following Nerbetski’s hiring, which resulted in community members agreeing to give him a chance to do the job.
“Since his incident 20 years ago, he has demonstrated an ability to bring change at his previous department, be an example of reform, and is committed to help APD through its ongoing transformation,” Keller said. “At APD, he has been a diligent data manager and his role does not include any decisions about mass gatherings and protests. We are not aware of any issues of any kind since he started.”
Associated Press journalist Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras