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APD changes truth policy

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Police officials in Albuquerque have always had some discretion in the discipline of officers who lie in response to job-related questions — more discretion than at departments such as Denver and Tucson where the presumptive penalty is termination, even on a first offense.

Now, APD brass has an even broader range of options.

Police Chief Ray Schultz has signed off on a change to the department’s standard operating procedure, usually called SOP, that says a first instance of untruthfulness related to their jobs or “operations of the department” can earn officers and civilian employees anywhere from a one-day suspension to termination.

For many years, APD employees who lied faced sanctions on a first offense that typically ranged from suspension of a month or more to termination, Deputy Police Chief Allen Banks said in an interview last week.

Banks said the department wanted a broader range of penalties because not all cases of untruthfulness are the same.

“Yes a lie is a lie. Absolutely,” Banks said. “You can also say there are misinterpretations or miscommunications in regards to what he or she believed or thought or said …. that is why each case is different.

“…That’s why you have to look at the totality of the case.”

APD’s discipline system needed to reflect that, he said.

He insisted the SOP change doesn’t amount to looser standards.

“If it’s a clear, blatant lie in an investigation, we’re going to look at that very seriously,” he said. “We’re not going to allow an employee to sacrifice their integrity and the integrity of the department and continue to be employed. You have to have that integrity to answer to the public, to the judicial system, the city and, most importantly, to themselves.”

Retired APD Lt. Steve Tate, who ran the Internal Affairs division and Police Academy before leaving in 2006, disagrees with the new SOP.

“When it comes to lies told in the scope of employment, there are no levels,” Tate said. “You’re either truthful or you’re not. This change is very troubling and, really, it’s embarrassing. Truthfulness is something we stress from the beginning. I don’t see who this benefits: certainly not the officers, the department or the citizens.”

Tate has been a frequent and vocal critic of Schultz since leaving the department.

APD’s Honor Code, which is given to cadets at the police academy, states: “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor will I tolerate anyone who does.”

Banks agreed that truth-telling is paramount for police employees, who are often called on to testify in court and who depend on public trust.

Tate said he would have preferred a zero-tolerance policy on lying during the time he was at APD. He said there has been an ongoing debate in law enforcement for years about how to deal with untruthfulness, and many departments operate under “a presumption that if you lie, you’re fired.”

Banks said he couldn’t speak for other departments, but said, “Who’s to say other departments are doing best practice. Who’s to say we’re not doing best practice by looking at an entire case or several cases?”

“… I think we are being very, very fair not only to our employees, but I think we are being fair to the citizens of Albuquerque, too.”

Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association President Greg Weber said he was vaguely aware of the change. He said he didn’t see it as a loosening of standards.

“I have never known the chief or anyone higher up in the department to say, ‘Hey, you lied, we’re going to give you a second chance,'” Weber said. “I don’t see this as anything that egregious where they’re going to put up with deception or outright lying.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating APD since November, primarily to determine whether city police have a pattern of violating citizens’ civil rights. Use of force and what federal officials call “internal control mechanisms” — the way APD holds its officers accountable through policies and Internal Affairs — are central to the DOJ’s probe.

The change to the truthfulness procedure was published in October, with a key difference from what Banks and Schultz say was intended: As written, it would have lessened the maximum possible punishment for a first instance of lying from termination to a 30-day suspension.

In an email Tuesday, Schultz said that change, which was posted on APD’s website, was incorrect because it contained a typo. Officials are now correcting it, Banks said.

Truthfulness SOP

A change in procedure begins when “someone sees an outdated SOP,” Banks said.

APD’s inspections and accreditation unit comes up with a proposed change, which a committee of officers, department brass, legal staff and a union representative vote on. The police chief signs off on final changes.

Banks said he wasn’t aware of anything specific that prompted the change. He said he didn’t know who initially identified the truthfulness SOP as one that needed updating.

The policy reads: “Personnel shall truthfully answer all questions specifically directed to them, which are related to the scope of employment and operations of the department.”

For as long as several current and former APD employees can remember, including Banks, violating that policy was a “Sanction 1” offense that carried a penalty of “suspension/dismissal.”

Discipline for violating the policy now falls into a range: from a “Sanction 1” to a “Sanction 5.” Sanction 5 carries a suspension of one to four days.

“When you look at a ‘one-through-five,’ it gives you a little more latitude in regards to the investigation,” Banks said. “Not all investigations are the same. They are not all black and white.”

Banks said that with a strict Sanction 1, “that basically locks you into a harsh discipline.”

Strict Sanction 1 policies at APD include violating felony laws, failing to maintain state police officer certifications and using or possessing illegal drugs.

Sanction 5 policies include making false statements on a police report, overtime slip or certain other documents completed by APD employees; associating regularly with people under active criminal investigation, unless it is to perform job duties or because personal relationships make it unavoidable; and knowingly entering a house of prostitution or house of illegal gambling unless it is to perform law enforcement tasks under a supervisor’s direction.

Banks said that under the new procedure regarding truthfulness, “you have the latitude to look at it and say it is not a termination case based on the overall case…”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal