Albuquerque’s police oversight folks took on several hot potatoes at their Aug. 9 regular meeting.
Civilian Police Oversight Agency Executive Director Edward Harness told the CPOA members that he was recently informed that Albuquerque Police Department’s Internal Affairs Department had dropped its parallel inquiry into the department’s handling of a child abuse and child prostitution case, thereby relying on the police oversight agency to investigate at least 20 target officers.
The case involves parents Teri Sanchez and James Stewart who are facing charges of child abuse, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, human trafficking, promoting prostitution and various lesser charges, all connected to their three children, particularly their 7-year old daughter.
In May 2018, after arrests by the state Attorney General’s Office, Police Chief Michael Geier defended his officers when they did not collect the little girl’s bloody underwear after being called to her school in Nov. 2017. Teachers testified that the officers threw the bloody underwear in a dumpster, saying it was not evidence. Geier later said that perhaps more could have been done by his officers, after about 22 referrals to Children, Youth and Families Department and more than a handful of calls to the police department about the family came to light. Now, the APD internal investigation is being handed off to the oversight agency, which hopefully will have full access to all materials of any kind that agency investigators need, to examine what went awry on APD’s end.
To do a thorough job, Harness asked the board for approval to send a letter to the police union asking for a waiver on the 120-day limit on the time the agency can take to investigate potential wrongdoing by police officers or department employees. “We have identified 20 targets. As a target these are the subjects of the investigation,” Harness said. Four CYFD employees have been put on leave so far, for their roles in missing key behaviors or signs things were off with the family.
Members also approved considering how APD brass has handled the discipline of former Commander, now Lieutenant Jennifer Bell Garcia, who was head of the Internal Affairs department. Bell Garcia was caught backdating paperwork in an investigation to make it look like it was completed on time, which is potentially a felonious act. At first, Bell Garcia was only moved to the traffic division then after some backlash, was demoted from Commander to Lieutenant in lieu of suspension or harsher penalty. By the way, she is married to Deputy Chief Eric Garcia. CPOA members gave the thumbs up to review the independent investigation into Bell Garcia’s internal affairs shenanigans because every case that went across her desk is now suspect.
CPOA members also want to know more about what is being called the forced retirement of Commander John Sullivan from the city’s police training academy. Allegations recently arose surrounding the prior administration’s overlooking of routine test cheating. Former Commander Sullivan had taken over the academy only a few months ago, but had testified to a federal judge recently about the problems he found at the academy. He chose to retire after he was told he was going to be demoted.
To steer clear of any personnel issues or interfering in any future whistleblower lawsuit, the board approved “conducting a preliminary investigation into the viability of a further investigation to look at testing misconduct at the academy.” Whew. That is a roundabout way of saying the board wants to find out if there really was systemic cheating at the police academy under prior administrations.
Oversight members got an update from Commander Rob Middleton on the progress of the latest revamp of the department’s use-of-force policies. The use-of-force policy rewrite is required by the nearly 4-year-old Court Approved Settlement Agreement with the Department of Justice. Intermediate weapons include pepper spray, batons, electronic control weapons or tasers, 40 millimeter impact guns and bean bag shotguns.
Middleton said the current policy tells officers what level of force they can use in these situations. The new policy will direct officers on what they can do to de-escalate or minimize the force needed in these situations. There’s a big difference. Middleton stressed the collaborative effort in this policy rewrite with citizens and groups such as the ACLU having a say. There will be more discussion and information about this policy rewrite at the board’s next meeting.
According to Interim Internal Affairs head Mike Miller, there were 44,152 dispatch calls for APD in July. He said this was down a little, by about 600 calls, from June. Internal Affairs gave officers 4 verbal reprimands, two 40-hour suspensions, three 80-hour suspensions and recommended 3 terminations. There were 18 officer “early intervention alerts” and there are 17 Internal Affairs cases pending.
The Civilian Police Oversight Agency is comprised of nine members appointed by the City Council for three-year staggered terms. Current members are Chair Leonard Waites, Vice Chair Chantal M. Galloway, Eric Cruz, Joanne Fine, Dr. William Kass, Valarie St. John and Chelsea N. Van Deventer. They are tasked with advancing constitutional policing and accountability for APD and the Albuquerque community.