County Commission chairman wants oversight board to study jail video - Albuquerque Journal

County Commission chairman wants oversight board to study jail video

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The chairman of the Bernalillo County Commission wants a newly created civilian oversight board to examine the video in which jail officers used force on a female inmate who wouldn’t stop crying.

The incident is already part of a criminal investigation, and one of the officers involved has been on paid leave since January. The inmate’s sister, meanwhile, said her sister’s treatment in jail amounted to torture.

Commissioner Art De La Cruz said Thursday that county staffers should cooperate with the new jail oversight board – established last year – to allow its members to review the incident involving inmate Susie Chavez, who was shocked with a stun gun, hit with inflammatory spray and put in a “wrist lock” during an incident captured on video.

The oversight board, De La Cruz said, should examine other examples of use of force, too, and make recommendations.

“We need to make sure that we are engaging this group of citizens to that end so they have an oversight role and help us craft policy and improve operations,” he said Thursday. “We’ve got to feed them information so they can help us.”

Commissioner Wayne Johnson said the county has already made some administrative changes. The new interim jail chief, Tom Ruiz, for example, now reports directly to the county manager – a move intended to improve communication between the massive Metropolitan Detention Center on the West Side, which now holds about 1,400 inmates, down from more than 2,600 inmates previously, and the county’s leadership in Downtown Albuquerque.

“These use-of-force things, in the past, have seemed to have just been swept under the rug at MDC, and nobody in management knows, and that’s got to stop,” Johnson said.

Inmate Susie Chavez turns to face two unidentified jail officers as another officer searches her cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center on the West Side. (Source: Bernalillo County)
Inmate Susie Chavez turns to face two unidentified jail officers as another officer searches her cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center on the West Side. (Source: Bernalillo County)

The Chavez incident happened in September last year, Johnson said, but the county’s top officials weren’t aware of it until this summer.

The county this week released the video of what happened to Chavez in response to a Journal request under the state Inspection of Public Records Act. The Journal published a story Thursday detailing the video and posted it online.

The video shows jail officers confronting Chavez over pictures – perhaps pages torn from a magazine – put up near her bunk. Chavez won’t hold still, demanding to know the name of the officer holding her against a wall. An officer applies a stun gun to her.

The inmate, who is 4 feet, 11 inches tall, falls to the ground and shrieks and sobs after that, so much so that jail officers try repeatedly to get her to be quiet.

“Put her in a wrist lock,” one officer tells another, “and twist her wrist until she shuts up and stops crying.”

Chavez cries out in pain and continues to sob. Officers threaten to spray her with Mace if she won’t be quiet. Eventually, she is sprayed in the face after she starts banging her head on the floor.

Sister reacts

Celya Robles, of Danville, Ill., said she viewed the video on the Journal site.

“I couldn’t finish watching it,” Robles said. “I could hear her screaming. She was in so much pain.”

She said she and Chavez grew up in foster care and that Chavez’s son was shot and killed in 2012. Chavez, at one point in the video, tells jail employers that she has lost her son.

“I’m just in shock, and I feel for my sister,” Robles said. “I know she’s going through a lot.”

In her view, she said, the video shows jail officers “mistreating and torturing” Chavez.

At the time of the incident, Chavez, 36, had been in jail about 16 days on a heroin possession charge and a warrant. She was arrested Aug. 29 after security officers at the Kmart on Carlisle and Indian School reported to police that she stole a $15 phone charger and a lollipop. She told police at the time that there was a warrant for her arrest.

The possession of heroin charge was dropped, but Chavez remained in jail on the warrant for a probation violation in a 2011 case of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

According to jail records, after the incident Chavez spent another three months in jail before being released into the county’s supportive housing program for jail inmates with mental health and drug addiction issues.

Appropriate force

Sgt. Eric Allen, vice president of the jail employees’ union, is on paid leave in connection with the incident.

Allen himself cannot be seen on the video, though he can be heard. He is wearing the camera that took the footage.

The union president said Allen and other officers did nothing wrong and that it’s appropriate to use force to get an inmate to stop making noise, if the noise is keeping the inmate from following commands.

In a written statement earlier this month, another union official said Allen “has a distinguished career serving at MDC and has been a powerful, effective advocate for the safety of his fellow detention officers.”

It’s easy to second-guess officers’ actions, especially if you’re not familiar with the realities of what it’s like in jail, Casey Padilla, president of AFSCME Council 18, said in a letter to the Journal.

New board

At De La Cruz’s urging, commissioners established the new jail oversight board in June last year. It’s an advisory committee empowered to launch investigations into allegations of violence and staff misconduct inside the jail.

The new board is allowed to hire outside investigators to examine potential violations of the use-of-force policy and other problems.

The group “absolutely” should look at the Chavez incident, De La Cruz said.

“They need to look at that,” he said. “They need to look at all incidents of force.”

The nine-member group is appointed by the commission. Its chairman is Rick Miera, a former state representative. The other members are former County Commissioners Deanna Archuleta and Michael Brasher, former Albuquerque Police Capt. Marie Miranda, along with members Rocky Valdez, Joe Booker, Hank Andrews, Robert Martinez and K.C. Quirk.

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