Police Complaints

Police Oversight Commissioners demand more details (with meeting video)

The Albuquerque Police Oversight Commission marked an important milestone in September, meeting for the first time in a long time with a full board of nine members. Vacant positions and no-show commissioners have been a problem at the POC for years but three recently appointed commissioners— David Cameron, Jonathan Siegel and, new this month, Richard Shine —have filled the empty chairs.

And how! We wrote last month how Commissioner Jonathan Siegel shook up the board’s typical policy of rubber-stamping police exoneration letters without even reading them. This month, Commissioner Richard Shine sat on the board for the first time and demanded—successfully!—that the Independent Review Officer start producing proper reports that will enable the commissioners to make informed, intelligent decisions.

The meeting included a rather emotional appeal by a citizen who had complained that the police did not provide proper services when he was the victim of a crime. Producing a large amount of testimony and information, the investigators stood by their original evaluation of the case and the commissioners mostly accepted their findings. But if the appeal failed to change anyone’s mind about that particular case, it did open some eyes about serious problems in the oversight process.

Commissioners complain of “sketchy” details from the IRO

After the appeal wrapped up, Commissioner David Cameron observed that when the original case was before the commission in July, the details presented by the IRO were extremely sketchy and vague. Cameron said he had gotten the completely mistaken impression, based on the IRO’s presentation of the original case, that the complainant had burglarized a house. In fact, as became clear to the commissioners during the appeal, the complainant was a law-abiding victim of a serious aggravated assault. The citizen’s complaint was that the Albuquerque police were disrespectful and ineffectual in investigating the crime, basically treating him as a criminal rather than as a violent-crime-victim seeking justice.

Commissioners Cameron, Martinez and Sobien all agreed that the information presented during appeal was far more detailed and would have been more properly presented during hearing of the original case. Commissioner Sobien went so far as to suggest that more substantial reports from the IRO would be “nice.”

New commissioner requires more details

After citizen appeals, the next order of business gets listed on the agenda as “Review and Approval of IRO letters,” that is, of complaint summaries and determinations from the Independent Review Officer. This usually entails a lot more “Approval” than “Review”. Most often, there’s a quick, unanimous vote to approve all letters without any review whatsoever.

But this time, begging his colleagues’ indulgence for his newcomer’s presumption, Commissioner Shine instead proposed a quite different motion. Selecting three IRO letters that he later referred to as “egregiously inadequate,” he moved that the other letters be approved and that these three letters be remanded back to the Independent Review Officer for additional investigation, if necessary, with instructions that they be resubmitted to the POC next month, each with a complete description of:

  1. the citizen’s allegations
  2. what investigative steps were taken, including which witnesses were interviewed and what they said
  3. summary of the results of the investigation
  4. an analysis of the applicable Standard Operating Procedures
  5. any necessary legal analysis that is required to resolve the matter
  6. dispositional recommendations to the Police Oversight Commission

It was a remarkable motion, quickly seconded by Commissioner Siegel. During discussion, Shine explained his reasons:

I am just trying to explain through this motion what kind of information I need as a commissioner, in my judgment, to be able to make a reasoned decision on any one of these individual cases that come to us. And I think, in the last ten or fifteen minutes, a number of commissioners have indicated they, in the past, have had trouble making decisions on some of these letters, given the lack of information that was supplied.

It seems to me that these letters should be complete, standing by themselves as a full and complete explanation of what the allegation was, what the investigation found, and what the results were of that investigation. That is important not only for the POC but for the public to be able to understand the allegations and the resolution of the allegations without reference to any other documents. Because this document is eventually going to become a matter of public record and it’s the way the public is going to learn what the allegation was and what the commission did and what the result was.

The vote was called and, incredibly, the motion passed. Only Commissioners Folk1 and Adkins voted nay.

The Albuquerque Police Oversight Commission is designed to empower the private citizens of Albuquerque in holding police accountable. Investigations and legal arguments are necessarily conducted by city-employed professionals, but they are supposed to answer to a volunteer board of private citizens who have no vested interest except that of representing the concerns and rights of the citizens of Albuquerque.

In the past, the tax-paid professionals have called the shots and the citizen overseers have always placed an unqualified trust in their thoroughness and honesty. This week, the Commission announced a return to the original ideal. Commissioners Shine and Siegel, and all the commissioners who voted to demand better reports from the IRO, have announced that it is the citizens of Albuquerque, not the police, who are in charge of police oversight. It is the citizens who, represented by these commissioners, set the standards, design the procedures, and write the rules.

And it seems that the employees got the message. Commissioner Bambi Folk, of course, positively quivered in annoyance as her fellow commissioners outvoted her and presumed to impose terms and requirements on the city employees. The employees, on the other hand, seemed amenable to any requirements the Police Oversight Commission might wish to enact. Referring to the six demands in Commissioner Shine’s motion, Independent Review Officer Robin Hammer stated, “I certainly do not oppose those requirements.”

We are not generally optimistic about seeking change through governmental channels. That is why we established PoliceComplaints.info, to publish the information that the government would rather see submerged, if not suppressed. But the new commissioners at the Police Oversight Commission are renewing in us a hope that citizens can take back the power they too trustingly delegated. Our very best wishes to all nine commissioners and special thanks to Commissioners Siegel, Shine and Cameron.

1 Commissioner Bambi Folk protested that taking the time to prepare adequate reports would delay communication with the citizen complainants who are waiting for a decision. Shine countered that the citizens will be better served by well-informed decisions, even if they take longer. Surely no citizen prefers a rubber-stamp dismissal to a thoughtful reply.