Albuquerque is seeking someone to take a sharp-eyed look at complaints against the police department.
The national hunt to replace the city’s independent review officer comes at a rocky time for law enforcement. Twenty-four officer-involved shootings since the start of 2010—along with a host of other bad cop behavior—prompted outcry. Residents have called for the police chief to resign and for the Department of Justice to investigate.
Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry says they received 53 applications and scheduled four interviews. The gig pays around $104,000 annually with a two-year contract. A staff of four works for the IRO, including three investigators.
Mayor Richard Berry has picked former Bernalillo County Deputy District Attorney and Judicial Standards Commission member Robin Hammer for the position. Hammer is one of three nominees the Police Oversight Commission recommended to Berry. The candidates were interviewed at the June POC meeting. Mayor Berry said Hammer has the skills and expertise needed for the job.
But will a new IRO bring about the sweeping changes the public is calling for?
“The whole police oversight system needs a new look, and this is a key position,” says City Councilor Isaac Benton. “The process needs to be revamped in such a way that the public has a sense that it really matters.”
Here's how it works: The independent review officer, who's on the city's payroll, checks out complaints made against the Albuquerque Police Department. He or she assigns them to either an investigator or APD's own Internal Affairs division. Results of the probe come back, and the review officer weighs whether any APD regulations have been violated. If there's a disagreement between the review officer and the police department, those cases are examined by the Police Oversight Commission.
In the early ’90s, APD also faced criticism about its shooting rate. The families of people who'd been shot by police organized New Mexico Vecinos United. The group demanded that there be an independent citizens’ review board that investigated complaints. They didn't quite get what they wanted. Instead, the mayor chooses commissioners from options presented by councilors.
“The process needs to be revamped in such a way that the public has a sense that it really matters.”
Councilor Isaac Benton
Perry says there are often vacancies on the commission. Today, one spot remains unfilled. According to city spokesperson Breanna Anderson, there is no commissioner from District 1. This is Councilor Ken Sanchez' Southwest Valley and Mesa district.
The all-volunteer commission—and the independent review officer—don't have disciplinary power. Only Police Chief Ray Schultz can dole out punishment.
William Deaton retired from the IRO position on June 1 after five years. Deaton was a federal magistrate and state district court judge. Judge Tommy Jewell, former chief of the District Court juvenile division, is sitting in as IRO for six months while the search continues.
“This is an important position because it gives citizens an opportunity to bring to the city complaints against police officers,” says civil rights lawyer Philip Davis.
The ideal candidate would have varied experience in the justice system and worked both prosecution and defense, says Perry. “This is a unique job that requires someone with a law degree who can conduct investigations, come to a conclusion and articulate and defend their position.”
Deaton's time as IRO coincided with a wave of shootings and heavy public skepticism about the police force. He ruled last year that the death of an Iraq War veteran, Kenneth Ellis III, was not justified. Because the commission disagreed with him, his report was not submitted to Police Chief Schultz. In another very public case, Deaton determined that then-Public Safety boss Darren White did not interfere when his wife crashed her car into a curb. Instead, Deaton wrote, the responding officer should have investigated Kathleen White for DWI.
Jewel Hall, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council, says this is a good time to look at other cities and see what police oversight processes are working for them. “Our system is outdated and needs to be changed,” she says. “It is too much of a good-old-boy system.”
Hall has been pushing for the U.S. Department of Justice to take a look at Albuquerque's police department. It’s an issue that just hit tragically close to home. Hall's only son, Milton, 49, was killed on July 1 when he was shot more than 40 times by the Saginaw Police Department in Michigan.
In Albuquerque, a pervasive criticism of the oversight system is that it lacks real muscle. That has to change, says civil rights lawyer Davis. "One good one to start with is to take away the blanket veto power of the police chief over the commission, and the commission over the review officer."
He recommends that the overseers have subpoena power so they can gather the information needed to make an informed decision. Additional training for the lay people on the commission to better understand constitutional rights and acceptable police procedures, he adds, would go a long way.
Hammer will be introduced to the City Council for approval at the Aug. 6 meeting.