Council considers changes for civilian police oversight group - Albuquerque Journal

Council considers changes for civilian police oversight group

CPOA complaint forms are available at Albuquerque Police Department headquarters and local libraries. (Elise Kaplan/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Ultimately, when the independent monitor overseeing the court-ordered reform of the Albuquerque Police Department leaves town, the Civilian Police Oversight Agency and its board will be the outside entity watching over the department.

But while past and present board members laud the spirit of oversight, they have expressed frustrations about the way their piece of it is working – saying their recommendations are often dismissed by the chief of police, the agency is tasked with investigating too wide a swath of complaints and morale among board members is at a low point after several resignations at the end of last year.

Now city councilors are attempting to address some of these issues by revising the ordinance governing the agency. The changes could be voted on at Wednesday’s meeting.

City Councilor Brook Bassan, who sponsored the ordinance along with Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton, said among the most significant changes are reducing the board from nine members to seven and directing the agency to only investigate complaints concerning sworn officers, not civilian personnel.

“I absolutely think these changes are going to make a significant improvement – at least I’m hopeful they will,” Bassan said. “I think that just streamlining their case load based off of the requirements in the (Court Approved Settlement Agreement) will help minimize some of the burden and what was described as the setup of failure.”

State of turmoil

The CPOA and its board have been in a state of turmoil over the past couple of years due to a revolving door of board members and understaffing at the agency. At one point there were only two investigators with the agency, leading to a dramatic decline in the number of cases they completed.

In October, the longtime executive director, Ed Harness, resigned from his position – blasting the board for opening up the post to other applicants at the end of his term rather than reappointing him. It was a move he said “will set back the organization and its ability to maintain compliance” with the settlement agreement laying out the APD reform effort.

Then, in the period of a month from November to December, four board members resigned.

Eric Olivas, the chair, wrote in his letter of resignation that he believes “this process is badly broken and many persons, policies, and politics have led to that breakdown.”

Interim director Diane McDermott said the agency is now fully staffed with six investigators – three of whom were just hired and aren’t yet taking cases. They investigate citizen complaints ranging from dislike of an officer’s tone during a traffic stop, for example, to use of force.

The board, made up of volunteers, reviews investigations and examines APD policy and procedures. They are appointed by city councilors.

McDermott, who has been with the agency through different iterations over the past 15 years, said without the agency there is no process for citizens to lodge a complaint against an officer and get it investigated.

The CPOA is required to publish semiannual reports, however 2021 data is not yet publicly available. McDermott said throughout last year there had been three cases where investigators found policy violations, where the police chief differed, sending a letter of non-concurrance.

She said non-concurrances have increased in recent months.

McDermott said sometimes this could be due to the department not wanting to hold an officer accountable but there could also be aggravating or mitigating factors that she is not aware of.

Similar oversight agencies exist all around the country. Some have a lot more power to discipline officers or have a say in the hiring or firing of a police chief, but others have less.

McDermott said in Albuquerque the goal isn’t necessarily to discipline certain officers but to improve policing department wide.

“The department needs to be accountable for how it conducts its policing,” McDermott said. “So it may not be that one officer, it may be the department’s failure on something.”

In addition to reviewing complaints, board members also make policy recommendations. An APD spokesman said since April 2019, the department had received recommendations for 10 policy changes and revised two policies in response.

Role of the board

Speaking before a federal judge in the APD reform case earlier this month, Chantal Galloway – who became chair of the CPOA when Olivas resigned – said the oversight agency and board has found itself as a “catch all for things deemed problematic,” and inaccurate and hyperbolic statements from some in the city have damaged its credibility.

“Oftentimes, we’re dedicating upwards of 60 to 80 hours per month to this process because we believe it’s important and that the community needs an outlet and a voice when it comes to policing in Albuquerque,” Galloway said. “It’s difficult to remain committed when our efforts are either dismissed or outright undermined by other members engaged in this process.”

Galloway, a mother to a 6-year-old son and director of administrative services for a telecommunications business, joined the board five years ago in the wake of the brutal death of Victoria Martens. She said she was motivated by the desire to make the world safer for children and bridge gaps between officers and the community.

She said she thinks more of the board’s time should be spent developing policies and making recommendations to APD.

In the proposed ordinance, councilors have removed the directive that CPOA board members shall review and approve or amend findings of all agency investigations.

Bassan said they listened to board members when crafting it. They considered offering members pay but ended up nixing that idea after talking with the board.

William Kass, a retired physical scientist and a board member, said the board is supposed to split its time between policy development and complaints, but in practice the complaints were eating up the majority of its attention.

Kass joined the board in 2017 and said he was motivated by his conversations with the American Civil Liberties Union and the families of people killed by APD to work for change.

“I think the power of the board lies in its ability to persuade APD to change policies or improve their training or become a better department,” Kass said. “I think that’s built by building relationships between the board, agency, APD and the community.”

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