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City Council to vote on new domestic violence policy

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The City Council plans to vote on a resolution next month mandating the Albuquerque Police Department to develop policies that allow victims of domestic violence to report incidents without the threat of being arrested on unrelated misdemeanor charges or warrants.

City Councilor Pat Davis

Councilor Pat Davis, the bill’s sponsor, said that the policies are necessary so that the victims won’t be afraid to ask for help getting out of a bad situation.

“We’re not saying we’re not enforcing the warrant,” Davis said. “What we’re saying is we’re going to deal with it in another way. The first priority is to get out of the situation and get you help and then we’ll contact the court or public defender and work out a time for you to appear in court to deal with that issue.”

The issue was brought to the forefront at the March City Council meeting as Harold Medina was confirmed as chief of police. Rumors had been swirling on social media that Medina had helped his son avoid getting arrested for a misdemeanor warrant. He had failed to comply with conditions of probation after being charged with driving while under the influence in 2017, according to court documents.

The Civilian Police Oversight Agency has received two complaints about Medina and his son – one from a self-described freelance journalist and another filed anonymously – and is investigating, said executive director Ed Harness. An APD spokesman said that there is no internal investigation into the matter.

In response to questions from Councilor Brook Bassan at the council meeting, Medina explained that his son had been in an abusive relationship, and in September 2019 he asked for a police escort to get his belongings from his ex-boyfriend’s apartment.

Medina’s son had a misdemeanor warrant at the time, but officers did not arrest him. Medina said he has never spoken to the officers, was not present during the encounter and did not get involved in any way.

Videos of the encounter provided to the Journal show Medina’s son and Medina’s wife at a police station. Medina’s son tells officers about a physical fight the couple had the night before and shows them bruises and scratches on his ribs.

The officers then go to the apartment and talk to the ex-boyfriend at length. Medina’s son does not mention that he has a warrant, but his ex-boyfriend does tell officers about it. No charges were filed, and a police officer wrote in a report that the altercation had taken place 10 hours earlier, and he “was unable to determine a predominant aggressor, therefore I was unable to issue a summons or effect an arrest.”

Medina’s son ended up getting his warrants cleared by surrendering to the court and paying a fee three days later, according to online court records.

In an interview, Bassan said she was satisfied with Medina’s explanation about why his son was not arrested on his warrant.

“It does make sense to me,” she said. “I want to be able to share, but then I recognize this is a family situation so it’s not my story to share. Even though I feel that there is some of that obligation to make sure that the public is aware, especially with such a high-profile position.”

In an interview last week, Medina said the experience his son went through helped shape his thinking about how officers should handle domestic violence victims.

“I hate to make this about me, but I think that it’s one of those things that sometimes leadership being exposed to certain situations really gives them a better understanding of how they could improve processes for everyone,” he said.

Davis said after the City Council meeting Medina and his wife approached him about working on the safe harbor bill.

“The chief and his wife reached out to me to ask if we can help create a process to ensure other families don’t go through that,” Davis said. “After speaking with the chief and his wife, we started doing research, and we couldn’t find any model legislation around the country that specifically addresses this type of issue. So we decided to create some.”

Davis – who was a police officer in Washington, D.C., in the early 2000s – said he remembers a time when officers were trained to arrest both parties if they were both involved in a domestic violence incident and “let the judge sort it out later.”

Since then, he said, procedures have evolved, and while officers will not always arrest victims if they have warrants or drugs on them, they might.

“Domestic Violence folks that I spoke with say ‘yes we hear that particularly sex trafficking victims and drug users that they don’t want to call the police because they might get arrested for those things,’ ” Davis said. “I think the warrant thing was sort of a unique situation that I hadn’t heard about yet, but given the number of outstanding misdemeanor warrants in Bernalillo County alone, it’s something that could happen.”

Davis’ resolution requires APD to work with criminal justice partners on a safe harbor policy – one that would allow victims to call for help without fear of being arrested on unrelated misdemeanor warrants or charges or felony warrants if there is a reasonable alternative. APD policies have to be reviewed by the Department of Justice and other stakeholders before they can be enacted.

“What it’s saying is we want APD to work with community partners to figure this out,” Davis said. “I don’t think that part is controversial. I expect to hear from some more conservative old-minded cops that we should be arresting everyone on warrants, but that’s just not where we are in the world.”

Medina said as an officer he never arrested a victim of domestic violence, “for obvious reasons.” He said victim advocates and supervisors working on domestic violence cases discourage arresting victims, and it’s an informal rule in the department.

However, it apparently does still happen.

Jessie Fierro, director of the victim advocacy unit at the Domestic Violence Resource Center, said they get about 500 calls a week, and about twice a week they hear from people who say they were arrested by APD officers or Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies after calling for help in a domestic violence situation.

Fierro said she supports the safe harbor bill and hopes that it will do some good.

“I think it is a wonderful thing, and if they put it into policy that would be great,” Fierro said. “Then we can assure victims that are calling in that are saying, ‘I need to call the police but I don’t want to, I’m afraid, I have a warrant.’ … I wish I could tell them for sure you’re not going to get arrested because there’s this law.”

Councilor Bassan, on the other hand, said while she does not believe any victim should be afraid to seek help, and the city should do what it can to protect people, it is also important to uphold the law and the criminal justice system.

“To begin making decisions that may alter how warrants, both misdemeanor and felony, may be negotiated will take considerable compromise among many criminal justice groups in order to be effective without significant, unintended consequences,” Bassan said. “To begin removing any level of law enforcement could risk increasing levels of crime in Albuquerque that we most definitely cannot endure.”

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