Albuquerque police Chief Gorden Eden disagrees much more often than his immediate predecessors with the city Independent Review Officer’s investigations that conclude officers violated department policies, especially when the officer didn’t use an on-body camera.
“It was a rare occurrence that when I found an officer be held accountable the department disagreed with that,” Independent Review Officer Robin Hammer said in an interview with the Journal, adding that Eden’s objections were “of concern to me, that the chief didn’t believe the investigation warranted holding the officer accountable.”
Police officials said Eden’s more frequent disagreements with the IRO on lapel camera policy violations are because the policy is so strict it’s nearly impossible to follow. They said the chief sides with the officers unless they had a habit of not turning the camera on and that a new policy for lapel cameras is being crafted and will be in place next year.
“The officers, in certain situations, have a hard time complying with it,” Deputy Chief William Roseman said of APD’s lapel camera policy. “Hopefully, once we get a new policy in place … it will give (officers) a little more flex so common sense can come into play.”
The Police Oversight Commission and the Independent Review Officer were created under legislation approved by the City Council in 1998. The intent was to enhance civilian oversight of the police department.
Since Eden became chief of the Albuquerque Police Department in February, Hammer and her staff have investigated citizen complaints and found 152 cases in which an officer violated a policy.
Of those cases, Eden disagreed with the IRO 23 times, or 15 percent of the time, according to IRO records. The IRO found 24 policy violations in 2014 before Eden became chief, and Chief Allen Banks and Acting Chief Eric Garcia disagreed with four of those investigations, according to IRO records.
This year was a stark change from IRO investigations in 2013, Hammer said. Last year, the IRO investigations resulted in 77 cases in which an officer violated a policy. Former APD chiefs Ray Schultz and Banks never disagreed with the IRO’s findings in 2013.
Lapel camera violations
Most of the disagreements were camera policy violations, Hammer said. Under that policy, police are required to record most interactions with the public in their entirety.
Rudeness is the most common complaint, and often an investigation into rudeness led to uncovering a lapel camera violation. If the chief disagrees with the IRO, the officer is not disciplined.
Albuquerque police have one of the largest caches of on-body cameras for a police department its size, with more than 700 cameras.
“Ours is probably the strictest policy in the United States, and it’s not a policy that is implementable,” Roseman said. “It doesn’t take in human factors from equipment failure to things just happening.”
In addition to remembering to turn on a camera during a fast-developing situation, city and police officials have raised several concerns about other aspects of the policy. They have questioned how it affects victim’s privacy rights and how recordings affect discovery as criminal cases wind through courts.
Officers also spend about 15 percent to 20 percent of their shift saving and logging lapel camera footage, according to city and police officials.
Because of those concerns, the city in August approved $50,000 for the University of New Mexico to launch a study into the department’s lapel camera policy. The study is expected to be finished by the end of June, but Roseman said a new policy may be put in place before then.
The settlement agreement reached between Albuquerque and the U.S. Department of Justice, after the DOJ found APD had a pattern of excessive force, says that “APD is committed to the consistent and effective use of on-body recording systems” and that police will update their lapel camera policy next year.
APD Forward, a community group interested in police reform, has said a strong lapel camera policy that requires most interactions to be filmed is crucial. The group has agreed that interactions between police officers and crime victims, witnesses, confidential informants and certain cases where officers go into private homes shouldn’t be recorded.
But officers should be recording during all traffic stops, arrests and when serving a warrant, said Micah McCoy, a spokesman for the ACLU in New Mexico.
“That’s absolutely essential,” he said. Use-of-force cases “arise from routine traffic stops and escalate from there.”
Here are a few examples on which Eden and Hammer disagreed:
- Jason White complained in March that he was arrested by an Albuquerque officer who threw away his personal belongings during the arrest, including prescription shampoo, homework papers, scissors, nail clippers and tweezers.
Hammer wrote in her investigative report that throwing away shampoo was within policy, because officers are not allowed to tag liquids into evidence. She went on to report that the officer said he couldn’t remember what other items he threw away, and the officer had turned off his camera before he allegedly threw away White’s belongings.
Hammer found that the officer violated the camera policy and that the other complaints were not sustained, which meant it couldn’t be determined whether the officer violated a policy. Eden disagreed with her on the violation of the lapel policy.
- Archie Montoya complained to police in August that he was the victim of false imprisonment and assault but that responding officers didn’t arrest the suspects. Hammer exonerated the primary officer for her investigation of the alleged crime. She said there was no recording of the incident, even though the officer said she activated her camera.
Hammer found the officer violated the lapel camera policy, and Eden disagreed.
- David Shaykin complained in September that police officers mishandled a call for service when he reported that his neighbors assaulted him. He said an officer pushed him into a wall during the investigation, damaged a screen door to his house and handcuffed him. The responding officers’ lapel camera recorded a conversation with Shaykin’s neighbors and police, but not police interaction with Shaykin.
Hammer ruled that complaint against the officers was “not sustained,” but she found that the officers didn’t fully and accurately write their reports and weren’t using their on-body cameras when they interacted with Shaykin. Eden disagreed on both counts.
In addition to creating a new lapel camera policy, the city is in the process of reforming its civilian oversight processes, which include changes to the Independent Review Officer.
One of the changes is that Hammer, a former prosecutor – or the person hired to replace her as the executive director of the Police Oversight Agency – will have access to more information, including statements officers make to internal affairs investigators. The executive director will be appointed by the Civilian Police Oversight Board.
The executive director’s investigations into civilian complaints will be approved by the civilian board, and if the chief disagrees with the findings, there will have to be a letter explaining the disagreement.