Councilors consider amending Civilian Police Oversight Ordinance
February 22 – Ultimately, when the Independent Observer overseeing the court-ordered reform of the Albuquerque Police Department leaves town, the Civilian Police Oversight Agency and its Board of Directors will be the entity outside who will monitor the department.
But while past and current board members praise the watchdog spirit, they have expressed frustrations with the way their party operates – saying their recommendations are often overruled by the police chief, the agency is tasked with investigating too wide a swath of complaints and board member morale is at an all-time low after several resignations late last year.
Today, city councilors are trying to address some of those issues by revising the ordinance governing the agency. The changes could be voted on at Wednesday’s meeting.
Councilman Brook Bassan, who sponsored the ordinance along with councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton, said one of the most significant changes was to cut the board from nine to seven members and direct the agency to only investigate complaints about sworn officers, not civilian personnel.
“I absolutely think these changes are going to make a significant improvement – at least I hope they will,” Bassan said. “I think just streamlining their workload based on the requirements of the (court-approved settlement agreement) will help minimize some of the burden and what has been described as the setup for failure. “
Disorders and resignations
The ACPO and its board have been in a state of turmoil over the past two years due to a revolving door of board members and a lack of staff at the agency. At one point, there were only two investigators in the agency, which led to a dramatic drop in the number of cases they handled.
In October, longtime chief executive Ed Harness resigned from his post – blaming the board for opening up the position to other candidates 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 defining the ODA reform effort.
Then, in the one-month period from November to December, four board members resigned.
Eric Olivas, the president, wrote in his resignation letter that he believed “this process is badly broken and many people, politicians and politicians have led to this failure.”
Acting Director Diane McDermott said the agency is now staffed with six investigators, three of whom have just been hired and are not yet taking cases. They investigate citizen complaints ranging from aversion to an officer’s tone during a traffic stop, for example, to the use of force.
The Board, made up of volunteers, reviews investigations and reviews DPA policy and procedures. They are appointed by the municipal councillors.
McDermott, who has been with the agency through different iterations over the past 15 years, said that without the agency, there is no process for citizens to file a complaint against an officer and investigate.
The CPOA is required to publish semi-annual reports, but data for 2021 is not yet publicly available. McDermott said throughout the last year there have been three instances where investigators have found violations of the policy, where the police chief differs, sending a letter of mismatch.
She said mismatches have increased in recent months.
McDermott said that sometimes could be because the department didn’t want to hold an officer accountable, but there could also be aggravating or mitigating factors that she wasn’t aware of.
Similar oversight bodies exist across the country. Some have much more power to discipline officers or have a say in hiring or firing a police chief, but others have less.
McDermott said in Albuquerque the goal isn’t necessarily to discipline individual officers, but to improve the police department as a whole.
“The department needs to be accountable for how it does its policing,” McDermott said. “So maybe it’s not that officer, maybe it’s the department’s failure on something.”
In addition to reviewing complaints, council members also make policy recommendations. An ODA spokesperson said that since April 2019, the department had received recommendations for 10 policy changes and revised two policies in response.
Focus on policies
Speaking before a federal judge in the ODA reform case earlier this month, Chantal Galloway – who became CPOA chairwoman when Olivas stepped down – said the watchdog agency and council had ended up as a “catch-all for things deemed problematic”, and inaccurate and hyperbolic statements by some townspeople damaged its credibility.
“Often we spend upwards of 60-80 hours per month on this process because we believe it is important and the community needs an outlet and a voice in policing in Albuquerque. “, said Galloway. “It’s hard to stay engaged when our efforts are either dismissed or outright undermined by other members committed to this process.”
Galloway, mother of a 6-year-old son and director of administrative services for a telecommunications company, joined the board five years ago following the sudden death of Victoria Martens. She said she was driven by a desire to make the world safer for children and to close the gaps between officers and the community.
She said she thinks more of the board’s time should be spent on policy development and making recommendations to the DPA.
In the proposed order, advisers removed the directive that CPOA board members must review and approve or modify the findings of all agency investigations.
Bassan said he listened to board members when designing it. They considered offering members compensation, but ended up rejecting this idea after discussions with the board of directors.
William Kass, a retired physicist and board member, said the board is supposed to divide its time between policy-making and complaints, but in practice complaints take 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 those killed by ODA to work for change.
“I think the power of the board is in its ability to persuade ODA to change policy or improve its training or become a better department,” Kass said. “I think it’s built by building relationships between the board, the agency, the APD and the community.”