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Agency: Officer followed APD policy in child abuse investigation

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque police officer who failed to collect a 7-year-old girl’s bloodstained underwear as evidence didn’t violate department policy.

But another officer didn’t follow procedures when he or she reported earlier child abuse allegations involving the girl to a state child welfare agency and didn’t see to it that the issue was also investigated by law enforcement.

Those are the findings outlined in a draft letter summarizing the investigation by an agency that looks into citizen complaints against police.

The executive director of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency said in the letter that when presented with the girl’s underwear, the officer called Crimes Against Children Unit detectives, who said they had talked to the girl in question and her brother and there was no proof of a crime so the clothing didn’t need to be collected.

Months later, the girl’s relatives were arrested.

Authorities with the state Attorney General’s Office allege that the girl was forced into prostitution, and they have revealed that state child welfare and law enforcement authorities for years had been warned of possible abuse within the family, yet the girl was left in their custody.

The CPOA has completed its initial investigation of a citizen complaint that was filed after the arrest of James Stewart and Teri Sanchez, both 38. In May, Stewart was indicted on one count of human trafficking and multiple other charges, including criminal sexual contact of a minor and child abuse. Sanchez was indicted on five counts of child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Ed Harness

Edward Harness, executive director of the CPOA, said the agency’s investigations are limited to finding policy violations and not deeper-rooted problems within the Police Department. He told a subcommittee of the Police Oversight Board members last month that they could possibly use the case as an example to more deeply review police officers’ responses to child abuse cases.

The CPOA reports to the Police Oversight Board, a citizen volunteer board that makes recommendations on policy to the Albuquerque Police Department.

“It doesn’t answer all the questions,” Harness said of the CPOA investigation. “That’s the board’s function in looking at trends and policy analysis.”

Harness also acknowledged that the CPOA investigation was limited because the police union didn’t waive a deadline the CPOA has for completing an investigation into an officer.

Shaun Willoughby, president of the police union, said, “It was important for the officers involved in the case to ensure that the city of Albuquerque, including the CPOA, fall within their respective timelines that everyone is very well aware of. That is a right that is bestowed on the officers.”

Harness said the case required CPOA investigators to review police contacts with the family dating back to 2012 and interview at least 20 officers. The family lived in different hotels throughout the city, which further complicated the investigation, he said.

Harness declined to comment further on the CPOA’s findings until after board members vote on whether to approve them, which is scheduled for next week.

The investigation was launched when Jim Larson, a former Dallas police officer and U.S. Secret Service agent, filed a complaint with the CPOA alleging numerous lapses in the police investigation of the family of Stewart and Sanchez.

The only policy violation the CPOA found was committed by a detective who was volunteering at the school when a teacher raised a concern about the girl’s well-being.

The detective, identified as “Det. S,” volunteered at the child’s school on Sept. 22 and Nov. 9 of 2017. During those days, a teacher approached the detective and reported the girl had recently said that her grandmother held a knife to her throat and that the girl had stolen mail with her father.

The detective reported the case to CYFD.

The CPOA found that the detective violated one section of APD’s procedures regarding crimes against children, which says that referring a case to CYFD does not relieve an officer of the responsibility of completing a criminal investigation.

Harness, in the draft letter to Larson, said the CPOA determined many of his concerns were unfounded.

“I’m completely dissatisfied,” Larson said of the CPOA’s investigation. “I found it shocking. … I think there is substantial evidence that those kids should have been removed (from Stewart and Sanchez).”

In the years before their arrest, CYFD had received more than 20 tips about the family alleging emotional, physical and medical abuse and neglect. Two of the tips mentioned possible sexual assault.

Police also had prior dealings with the family.

APD Chief Michael Geier

In November 2017, police were called to the girl’s school after her teacher, while helping her change clothes, noticed blood in her underwear. The teacher said in court that the officer threw away the clothes and said they couldn’t be collected as evidence.

The CPOA letter said that the officer first contacted detectives who told him not to collect the underwear. The officer said he left the school without taking them and doesn’t know what happened to them, according to Harness’ letter.

The CPOA’s review of the police investigation is just one of the second looks after Stewart and Sanchez were arrested.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller

Mayor Tim Keller and Police Chief Michael Geier last summer announced that a police internal affairs investigation would be completed. Keller said then that the IA investigation would be made public. Gilbert Gallegos, a police spokesman, said late Thursday that five officers were found to have violated policies and they were disciplined with either verbal or written reprimands or counseling.

Police haven’t provided the investigation to the Journal through an Inspection of Public Records Act request.

Keller also said last summer that APD issued several special orders after Stewart and Sanchez were arrested, such as requiring officers to access a CYFD database when investigating possible child abuse.

APD officials didn’t respond to questions Thursday about what affect the special orders have had in the past six months.