They voted 6-3 late Monday against a proposal to suspend operations of the Police Oversight Commission. The rather tense debate included emotional testimony from POC members, activists, and the family and friends of people shot by officers in recent years.
In the end, most councilors said an imperfect oversight commission was better than none at all. They noted that the commission’s meetings are televised, giving the public a peek into the investigation of complaints.
“I’m just hesitant to disband this at this point because it’s the only citizen involvement in the process right now,” Council President Dan Lewis said.
Councilors Trudy Jones and Brad Winter had proposed suspending the POC until the city settles on a new system of civilian oversight for the police department.
The POC has faced criticism from across the political spectrum in recent months. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a freedom-of-speech lawsuit against it earlier this year for abruptly limiting public comment during a mid-December meeting. In January, one of the commission’s votes – to censure a member – was voided because its consideration violated the state Open Meetings Act.
Winter said it didn’t make sense for the POC to continue after so many problems.
“The whole process does not work,” he said.
The city established its civilian oversight system in 1999. An independent review officer investigates citizen complaints against police and decides whether an officer is in the right or wrong. The POC can accept or reject the findings, but the police chief has final say on disciplinary matters.
Under the Winter-Jones proposal, all functions of the POC would have been suspended until the council re-authorized the group or enacted a new oversight system. The independent review officer would have continued to accept and investigate citizen complaints, but without involving the POC.
Councilor Janice Arnold-Jones joined Winter and Jones in voting in favor of the bill. Against it were Lewis, Ken Sanchez, Roxanna Meyers, Isaac Benton, Rey Garduño and Don Harris.
Benton said the council has already appointed several new members to the oversight commission and that there’s no clear idea when a new oversight ordinance will be adopted.
“We can’t abandon the complaint process,” he said. “We can’t just drop everything – for how long? We haven’t given ourselves a real deadline.”
Mike Gomez, whose son was fatally shot by an officer, told councilors that the new POC members “are a lot better than what we had before. At least they’re trying.”
The City Council, meanwhile, is trying revise the POC ordinance. Just last month, the council adopted legislation calling for creation of an 11-member task force to evaluate and make recommendations on the POC by the end of the year.