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APD initiates child abuse investigation policy changes

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

In response to public concern and questions over how Albuquerque police handled a teacher’s child abuse report, all Albuquerque police officers have been issued what the mayor called “common sense” new orders.

Police Chief Michael Geier issued three special orders on Wednesday that require all officers called to a possible child abuse call to collect any possible evidence, preserve all on-body camera footage indefinitely and access a law enforcement portal that provides police with information on prior contact between the family and social workers.

“Our city cannot wait to make common sense changes to old APD policies,” Mayor Tim Keller said during a news conference on Wednesday.

In the recent case in question, police were called to a local school in November 2017 on a suspected child abuse case after a teacher changing a 7-year-old girl into clean clothes found the child with bloody underwear.

After interviewing the girl, her family and the teacher, Albuquerque police didn’t launch a criminal investigation. The Attorney General’s Office this year took up the investigation after school officials alerted them of their suspicions in April, and the agency brought serious charges against the girl’s close relatives.

James Stewart has been charged with human trafficking, promotion of prostitution, and other crimes, and Teri Sanchez is charged with child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A complaint against Stewart says that the girl told investigators Stewart forced the child to touch people’s genitals and steal, and that Sanchez forced her to beg for money, sometimes by herself.

Court documents and testimony in the case indicated that during the APD investigation in November, an officer threw the bloody underwear in a dumpster instead of collecting it as evidence. Police say it was because of chain-of-custody issues and the fact that no one had reported a crime.

The new policy requires police on any suspected child abuse call to gather all items that possibly could be evidence even if a crime hasn’t been reported. Police didn’t previously have a formal policy on what to do with possible evidence where no crime had been reported.

Police officials also said Wednesday that not all on-body recordings in the case were preserved. Police will now retain all footage until the statute of limitations expires or one year after the child becomes an adult. The prior policy was to delete video after 120 days if no criminal investigation was launched.

Keller has also said it’s not clear who from the department — and when — accessed a Children, Youth and Families Department portal, created in May 2017, to give police information on when and why CYFD investigators had met with family.

Henry Varela, a spokesman for CYFD, said each contact is logged in by email, computer, date and time, and that Albuquerque police at one point did access the portal. The portal shows that CYFD had received 25 calls alleging emotional, physical and medical abuse and neglect of the girl and her two older brothers. Varela said Wednesday the agency’s records detailing when and who accessed the database were not immediately available.

Albuquerque police officers now must contact the Real Time Crime Center so the center can access CYFD’s law enforcement portal anytime they are called to investigate possible child abuse. Previously, officers didn’t have a formal policy for how to use the database.

Keller said how police handled the November 2017 report is the subject of an ongoing internal affairs investigation.

“We will get a clear picture of that,” he said. “That’s the good news.”

But in the meantime, police are creating or changing the three policies.

“The whole thing with policies is … they are more of a map on where you want to be, but there are a lot of areas (where officers have) discretion,” Geier said. “I think having more specific direction which is what we’re going to provide will eliminate … that somebody could make a decision based on a lack of information or misinformation.”

APD’s handling of child abuse cases has been questioned before in recent years. Omaree Varela, 9, and Victoria Martens, 10, were killed in 2013 and 2016, respectively, after authorities allowed the children to remain in their homes after investigating complaints of possible child abuse.

Albuquerque police in 2014 created a child abuse prevention task force to identify improvements to the way officers responded to child abuse cases. Not all of the recommendations from that task force were put in place, such as providing officers with more training on how to do forensic interviews, reducing the caseload of Crimes Against Children Unit detectives, and changing the dispatch codes for reported child abuse calls, Deputy Chief Arturo Gonzalez said during the news conference.

Some of those recommendations are now in place and other changes will be rolled out in the coming months, Keller said.

“These steps are part of building a department and a culture that is based on problem-solving, based on accountability, based on continuous improvement,” Keller said.

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