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‘A line in the sand’: APD, mayor promise review, changes after child abuse case

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

City and police officials said Tuesday that they have launched a formal internal affairs investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department’s encounters with relatives and teachers of a 7-year-old girl who prosecutors say was abused and trafficked.

Although the IA investigation will take around 90 days, the city will start next week rolling out updates to policies that this case revealed were inadequate, officials said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“We have sort of two different issues going on in this case,” Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said. “One is whether specific people followed specific policies. And then the other is whether those policies are in fact designed to move investigations the way that they should be moved. And if those policies are too broad or too narrow to really accomplish the goal of protecting kids.”

Those updates will include changes to policies for handling evidence and retaining lapel footage, training officers to conduct trauma-informed interviewing, and working with the Real Time Crime Center to access child welfare databases in a more effective way.

Mayor Tim Keller used the news conference as a chance to promote his plans for APD reform, calling out the previous mayoral administration for what he described as a practice of revealing “as minimal facts as possible” in difficult situations, and then failing to “deal with some of the systematic problems that are facing APD.”

“This administration will admit to mistakes that it makes,” he said. “We will admit we must improve, and we are now drawing a line in the sand and saying that the weaknesses in the system that let our kids down are not acceptable anymore.”

Prosecutors say the 7-year-old girl was abused by her relatives, Teri Sanchez and James Stewart. Police were contacted in November after a teacher discovered blood on the girl’s underwear. The teacher later testified in court that a responding officer threw the garment away because it had not been stored in a secure location.

On Tuesday, APD spokesman Simon Drobik said that officer was following a directive from a detective, and the clothing was not collected because a crime had not been disclosed by the child or the teacher.

“We can’t just generate complaints based on speculation,” Drobik said. “Somebody has to say something happened.”

Nair said the investigation will consider whether APD policy is designed to get the right result and whether the detective gave the right advice for the situation.

APD Chief Michael Geier.

APD Chief Michael Geier has said officers weren’t aware of the extensive history the girl and her relatives had with the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

Last week, CYFD spokesman Henry Varela told the Journal that when officers and Crimes Against Children detectives followed up on the report about the bloody underwear, someone from APD had accessed a CYFD law enforcement portal, meaning the department likely knew about the family’s extensive history with CYFD when officers met with the teacher.

On Tuesday, Geier did not say what prompted the latest investigation, which officials said was launched Friday. But Keller said he did not get the full story of the case upfront, and Geier said “things just didn’t sit right” and so “we started digging.”

In its early stages, the IA investigation will look at six employees, whose names have not been released, and it will encompass all of the department’s encounters with the family.

Keller said the investigation will produce a report detailing “the handling or mishandling of this case.”

“This isn’t the old APD,” Geier said. “We aren’t going to sweep everything under the rug. We’re gonna embrace change.”

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