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ABQ council passes overhaul of police oversight system

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque’s police force would face more robust civilian oversight under a bipartisan plan that emerged out of a bruising City Council debate late Thursday.

But neither the police union nor civil-rights activists seemed particularly happy with the proposed measure, which now goes to the mayor.

The union, in fact, predicted that passage of the ordinance will result in litigation for jeopardizing the rights of officers and violating the terms of their contract with the city.

The ordinance won approval on an 8-0 vote, however, after Scott Greenwood – the attorney negotiating on the city’s behalf with the U.S. Department of Justice – hinted that refusing to do so would hold up the crafting of a reform agreement sought by federal officials.

The bill is aimed at creating a new civilian agency independent of the mayoral administration and City Council. It would investigate and decide on citizens’ complaints against police, analyze trends and provide policy recommendations.

The new agency would be better-funded and more powerful than what’s in place now.

The proposed legislation, Greenwood said, is exactly the kind of change the DOJ wants to see in Albuquerque. Federal investigators said in April that APD has a pattern and practice of violating people’s rights through the use of force – and that weak civilian oversight contributed to the problem.

“This legislation really does strike the right balance,” Greenwood told councilors. “… Albuquerque will be a model.”

The ordinance was sponsored by councilors Rey Garduño, a Democrat, and Brad Winter, a Republican.

It underwent 17 amendments – something that prompted the American Civil Liberties Union and others to ask for more time to review the measure. They also said they wanted to be sure the ordinance set up a system that allowed the new agency to make broad policy suggestions, not just handle citizen complaints against officers.

But councilors said the ordinance calls for that. They also said that most of the amendments approved Thursday were technical, not substantive, in nature, and that it was simply time to act.

“I’m very proud of this bill,” Garduño said, noting that it was the product of not only a Republican and Democrat working together, but also a series of community meetings stretching back a year or more.

Winter agreed.

“It was very thoughtfully done,” he said. “I think we’ve done our due diligence here.”

The proposal now heads to Mayor Richard Berry. He said before the meeting that he would review carefully whatever the council sends over.

“We won’t make any judgment on any legislation until we see the final version,” Berry said. “It is important that we have a robust police oversight commission. We haven’t had that for years.”

The bill faced intense criticism from the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association and its attorney.

“We want to ensure the changes in this institution will not only benefit the community but will also be a fair process to the officers it affects,” APOA President Stephanie Lopez said. “There is no need to completely tear down the structure and rebuild it from the ground up.”

One concern is that the proposal would give the new Police Oversight Board the power to audit a sample of civilian complaints against officers. Through that process, the board would be empowered to review full investigative files and confidential material, including compelled statements officers make under “Garrity” protection, meaning that what they say can’t be used in a criminal prosecution. It could also subpoena witnesses and documents.

The board would review the material in a closed meeting.

The police union said the broad auditing power would jeopardize confidential information, especially if any board member discloses it to the public.

To address this concern, councilors added a section to the ordinance that says anyone who shares confidential information would be removed from the oversight board and face criminal prosecution.

Thursday’s action followed years of debate over how to reform civilian oversight of APD. City Council meetings have been dominated often by emotional testimony from the families of men shot by police and from community activists.

The U.S. Department of Justice also slammed Albuquerque’s police oversight system in its April report. Federal investigators said the city’s oversight system lacked funding and resources.

The proposal abolishes the old Police Oversight Commission and replaces it with a new “Civilian Police Oversight Agency.”

There would be a Police Oversight Board and an executive director who would lead an administrative office that investigates complaints against police.

The agency would be funded through a dedicated amount of one-half of 1 percent of APD’s budget. That would boost the funding from about $500,000 to $750,000 a year.

The agency would have its own independent attorneys, rather than have to rely on city attorneys as the old POC did.

The oversight board would also be empowered to recommend discipline of officers to the chief, who would have to explain in writing if he or she disagrees with the recommendation.

Council President Ken Sanchez called it a historic piece of legislation.

Councilor Dan Lewis was absent when the vote was taken.