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Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller says he and interim Police Chief Michael Geier jumped the gun in defending how the city’s police department responded to a report of suspected child abuse last year, which is now the subject of an internal affairs investigation.
Geier previously said police didn’t violate any policies and procedures when they investigated the complaint last November – deciding not to take into evidence a pair of the 7-year-old girl’s bloodstained underwear or conducting a “safehouse” interview with the girl.
Last month, the girl’s relatives were arrested on suspicion of child abuse and trafficking charges.
“It was premature to go out with those kinds of statements,” Keller said in an interview with Journal reporters and editors this week. “We should have waited.”
Keller said a “bunker mentality that goes down to every unit” was partially to blame for the premature response.
The mayor’s comments are the city’s first acknowledgement that officers may not have responded correctly, and follow weeks of public criticism and questions.
In the wide-ranging interview, Keller said Geier was at first relying on information provided to him from others, but that both the mayor and Geier remained skeptical and wanted to keep digging.
“What we learned is that you can’t make a few phone calls and say you have the entire picture,” Keller said. “And we’re not going to do it again. I think we learned a lot through this.
“There are still lots and lots of issues at APD. The deep-seated bunker mentality culture goes right down to every unit and shows up in a different way. It’s just a realization that reforming APD in reality is going to be a unit-by-unit exercise and that is going to take years.”
The Attorney General’s Office in early May charged two of the girls’ relatives on suspicion that they were trafficking the girl for sex. It was during a court hearing in that case that the November complaint and APD’s decision to toss the bloody underwear came to light.
Officers interviewed the child and her family at that time. And an officer went to the girl’s school to interview the teacher who had saved the blood-stained underwear and reported her concerns. The officer threw the garment away instead of collecting it as evidence, according to courtroom testimony from the teacher. And police also did not conduct a “safehouse interview.”
The family was no stranger to CYFD or law enforcement. Both city and county officers as well as CYFD had responded to calls through the years regarding the girl and/or her siblings.
Keller earlier had said there needs to be better communication between police and CYFD, and that if the officers had known about the history when they interviewed the teacher and family in November, they might have acted differently.
But Albuquerque police at one point had accessed that information from a CYFD database, Keller acknowledged in the interview, though it’s unclear who did see that information and what was done with it.
He said that is one change he wants to make: to put in place a system that documents who accesses the portal.
Two of the girls’ relatives have been charged with crimes. James Stewart is charged with human trafficking, promoting prostitution, criminal sexual contact of a minor and other crimes. Terri Sanchez has been charged with child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Both have been ordered to remain in jail without bond until their trial.
On Monday, Keller announced that Albuquerque police had launched an internal affairs investigation into how the police handled the case. He said the results of the investigation will be made public.
CYFD last month announced that they had placed several employees on leave in the wake of the Stewart case and that an internal review found several lapses in the way social workers handled the referrals they received about the girl.
On the other hand, for much of last month, city officials, including Geier and Keller, defended how officers handled the case, saying that no one was making allegations of a particular crime. They said that no one violated any APD policies or procedures.
“There may have been a crime, we can’t discount that at all, but we can’t look at a crystal ball and find out what … happened,” Geier said in a prior interview with the Journal.
In the interview this week, Keller said he continues to have confidence in Geier and his performance.
He said city officials, including Geier, didn’t have a clear enough picture of what happened when they said that no policies were violated.
Geier is among about a dozen applicants for the permanent police chief position. The city has a search committee led by James Lewis, Keller’s senior adviser for public safety, and was interviewing candidates this week.
The city will continue to take applications until it makes its decision, but Keller said he is aware of the urgency of naming a permanent leader to the police department. The city continues to experience high crime rates and is on pace for a record number of homicides as it enters the summer.
In addition to the Albuquerque police internal affairs investigation, the Civilian Police Oversight Agency will also review the matter, said Ed Harness, the executive director of the CPOA.
The civilian review was launched after Jim Larson, a former Police Oversight Board member, filed a complaint with the agency that made several allegations against police, including how they publicly defended the police department in media interviews.
Larson has previously filed a complaint about how the department publicly shared information about the child abuse case of Victoria Martens, a 10-year-old girl who police said was raped and murdered.
The CPOA investigation into the Martens case found that Albuquerque police officers “did lie” to the public about their interactions with Martens and her family prior to the young girl’s death.