Sometimes the most important news in a community doesn’t arrive with trumpets and a splashy press conference in front of television cameras. Sometimes the most important shifts in a society almost slip past us, virtually unnoticed.
But make no mistake about it; APD Chief Ray Schultz announced last week that after reviewing the case, he concurred with the Police Oversight Commission’s finding that one of our city policemen improperly resorted to racial profiling and would therefore be disciplined. The move was incredibly important.
Historic, yes, but gutsy as well. He should be applauded.
It was a step his predecessor atop the APD hierarchy never took during his tenure. It was also a first for Schultz in his second year on the job. With that single action he has restored some measure of hope to the entire oversight system and he has powerfully expressed to his officers that he is serious about respect for civil rights.
It was very hard to tell, until now, whether that respect had vanished from APD. The number of suspicious situations in which racial minorities complain about their treatment at the hands of policemen and women in our town has mounted in recent years.
It seems that, mostly, these suspicious cases involved African-Americans: UNM athletes, local business people and even cardiac surgeons from out of town had gone to the NAACP and the Oversight Commission to express their belief that they had not been dealt with fairly.
And (seemingly inevitably) the reviews by the Commission or Internal Affairs would come back exonerating police behavior. One-hundred percent of the time the ruling sided with police. Until this time.
Until Chief Schultz took a look at how a local high school student and athlete was singled out from an entire group of teammates in a local pizza joint by an off-duty officer working as security and ordered to leave … not the whole group, mind you, just him. The African-American in the party.
We won’t know what form the chief’s disciplinary action will take or even the name of the officer involved; those are, under city policy, considered private, personnel actions, and aren't public. That’s too bad; it takes a lot of the sting out of the discipline. But those aren’t Schultz’ rules. They are long-standing rules covering city employees, and Schultz isn’t free to change or modify them.
What is important, however, is that our cops have been put on notice: They cannot expect to be automatically excused from the repercussions of their missteps. Joe Powdrell, the NAACP local chapter president, has expressed to the community what a major change this signals, and how far it goes toward re-establishing the badly eroded confidence in APD of the African-American community.
The chief’s action does not mean the police department’s hands are being tied and it doesn’t mean all complaints will be accepted at face value just because they are made by an African-American.
But when a policeman violates a citizen’s rights, the investigation, we now can figure with confidence, will be on the up and up. It will be fair and it will acknowledge the reality of racial discrimination and racial profiling in Albuquerque. They are not fantasies. They have long-existed even as they have been vigorously denied.
The chief’s position is appointed. He serves at the whim of the mayor. Up to now, I, for one, have been a little skeptical about his willingness to rein in his sometimes overly gung-ho troops. APD’s reputation for taking decisive action and its willingness to shove citizens around in accomplishing that action has been far greater than its reputation for civil rights protections.
(Even local heroes like the Unser brothers, indisputably older white guys, have in recent days experienced some of the rough-handed attitudes of Albuquerque law enforcement officers, though in their case it was the Bernalillo Sheriff’s Department that was involved, not APD.)
In a sense, the effective chief of a police force has a role akin to the effective parent’s or the successful coach’s: It’s an art, not a science, to carefully balance the need to support his charges when they do well with discipline, and when they don’t. Policemen can notoriously fall prey to the “we versus them” attitude that sees all non-cops as the enemy. The chief’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
His willingness to support the Oversight Commission in this case is a heartening indicator that he will not put blind departmental loyalty above the needs of the community.
Law enforcement is incredibly stressful and incredibly important. Our trust in our policemen and women is critical if we are to unite as a community to combat crime. The system of civilian oversight we have come up with in Albuquerque is a fragile one, a type that could be cynically manipulated by APD if there is not a deep, honest commitment to making it work.
At the same time, when that deep, honest commitment is present, our skimpy oversight system might be enough to build this community’s trust in its police officers.
As we observe the general level of violence in Albuquerque yaw dangerously upward, we have to rely on skilled police officers who are prepared to act decisively. But equally important, they have to be respectful of the rights of bystanders, family members and, yes, even criminals.