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Editorial: Police oversight member’s tweets undercut mission

The Civilian Police Oversight Agency serves a vital function as the Albuquerque Police Department moves to comply with a Department of Justice agreement designed to ensure constitutional policing by APD. So it’s no surprise the minimum qualifications listed on the city website include “a demonstrated ability to engage in mature, impartial decision making.”

Board member Chelsea Van Deventer’s recent Twitter posts in which she profanely demonstrates hostility toward police officers disqualifies her on both counts. She re-tweeted, among other items, an analysis on the federal “Blue Lives Matter Bill” that includes a penalty of up to 10 years for assaulting a police officer and adds “F—THIS.”

Hardly mature or impartial.

The Albuquerque Police Officers Association sent a letter to the oversight agency board last month, calling on Van Deventer to resign because the tweets demonstrate she cannot fulfill her duty to be impartial as required by the CPOA ordinance. “This is about her open bias against the profession of policing and the fact that she is involved in voting for disciplinary infractions that concern Albuquerque police officers,” said Shaun Willoughby, APOA president.

He’s right. The CPOA was established in 2014 after the Justice Department concluded, appropriately, APD had a pattern of excessive force and violating rights. Part of the CPOA’s job is to take complaints about police misconduct, which are then assigned to an agency investigator. Findings are reviewed by the CPOA’s executive director, who recommends any discipline to be imposed. The board then reviews the executive director’s findings and makes a final recommendation to the chief of police – who can agree, or disagree and submit a letter of explanation to the board within 30 days.

This is an important process in correcting past wrongs and ensuring acceptable conduct by officers in the field, who face many perilous situations. For those with short memories, we just experienced the painful murder trial of Davon Lymon, who was convicted of the cold-blooded killing of APD officer Daniel Webster after a traffic stop near Eubank and Central.

The Black Lives Matter movement has indeed highlighted a national problem – the fact blacks are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites. There are many circumstances that come into play in those numbers, but the fact that Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean – as Van Deventer’s tweet suggests – Blue Lives don’t. USA Today reports 144 officers died in the line of duty last year, up from 2017. “Sadly, this reminds us that public safety is a dangerous job and can come at a very steep price,” says Craig W. Floyd, CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Van Deventer, a lawyer, said she has no plans to resign, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico drafted a letter defending her First Amendment rights to speak and tweet and accusing the union of trying to influence the board.

It’s a defense that doesn’t hold water. Like everyone else, Van Deventer has a right to speak. And, like everyone else, she surrenders some of those rights when she takes a position that requires impartiality. Judges do, and the CPOA is quasi-judicial in nature. What’s important is the perception by the public and the cop on the street that the CPOA has no ax to grind. That everybody gets a fair shake.

Van Deventer doesn’t get it. She said she thinks “it’s rather absurd to expect a police oversight board to be comprised of people who don’t have an interest in the subject matter that is central to police oversight and accountability.” But there’s a difference between having an interest and having a bias, and between the private thoughts and the public words of a person in a position of authority who is supposed to be impartial.

In response to the turmoil, the CPOA discussed the need for, but rejected adopting, a social media policy. But Vice Chairwoman Joanne Fine nailed it when she spoke strongly against board members – who are appointed by the City Council after submitting applications and a review by Council staff – independently and publicly giving their views about policing. “I think that we made a promise as board members to be impartial and fair-minded about these issues,” she said. “That’s the very reason we exist.”

Fine is right. Van Deventer’s irresponsible outburst undercuts this very important agency and its mission. If she really cares about it, she will step down. If she won’t, then two-thirds of the board or the Council should vote to remove her.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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