Police Complaints

Police Oversight Commission in turmoil — finally!

Meetings of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Commission are usually very smooth and orderly. Sure, every meeting starts with victims of police misconduct speaking out in pain and outrage, but that part is over quickly and just as quickly forgotten while the commissioners rush through their typical routine of rubber-stamping exoneration letters.

The city employees who are paid to investigate complaints against other city employees needn’t fear any difficult or probing questions from the commissioners, so they turn in vague, cursory reports, short on details and censored to eliminate officer names, disciplinary action, and other publicly available information that might embarrass the police union. Investigators insinuate that citizen complainants are attention-seeking trouble-makers, and everyone present treats the proceedings as an empty ritual, required by red tape but accomplishing nothing, to be run through as quickly and quietly as possible.

It’s a neat and well-rehearsed little farce. And all it takes is one man taking his duties seriously to screw it all up for everyone else. Recently-appointed Commissioner Jonathan Siegel made the radical move at last week’s meeting of listening and asking questions. It really shook things up.

When local gadfly Silvio Dell’Angela accused the commission of violating the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act by withholding the names of accused police officers, Siegel engaged him instead ignoring him, as the other commissioners (and numerous city employees) always do. When investigators asked the commission to approve vague letters of exoneration, Mr Siegel demanded more details. And when other commissioners complained “this is how we’ve always done it,” Mr Siegel had the gall to ask why.

The reaction of every other official in the room was immediate and palpable. City attorneys professed to lack the legal expertise to answer. Investigators claimed to be unprepared to discuss their own investigations. Other commissioners took pains to show they regarded Siegel’s questions as unproductive, if not downright rude, and the whole mess culminated in an event practically unprecedented in the board’s history: a non-unanimous vote. Usually, votes on the Police Oversight Commission are a perfunctory wave of every hand, but at this meeting, the chair was obliged to count dissenting votes, not just once but twice.

Commissioner and former chairperson Bambi Folk was especially vehement and several times showed visible exasperation with the new commissioner. She objected stridently almost to every single question or observation that Siegel made. When he proposed that the commission consider doing more to disseminate information to the public, at least one other commissioner thought it might be a good idea, but Folk and Commissioner Francis were quite forceful in their disagreement. And when one of the investigators protested that she was not ready for any questions about the case she was presenting, Folk was quick to berate, not the investigator who came unprepared, but Siegel for springing unexpected questions on her—unexpected questions about a matter before the board and on their public agenda!

To avoid embarrassments like this in the future, Chairperson Martinez proposed that any commissioner who wants to ask questions should notify the investigators well in advance, as though the agenda were not notice enough. Siegel objected to such a needless complication:

[The investigators] could know what’s on the agenda… they too could read them for an hour and be prepared for the meeting and be prepared for whatever comes up… They could be on their toes and ready without our needing to contact them again. What if I read them last night at the very last minute… and I just had some queasy feelings, last minute? I feel that I need the latitude to raise any questions I have about any letter that’s before us, and they ought to be prepared.

The notion that commissioners need to make special arrangements just to ask a question shows just how ridiculous these meetings have become. Questions are the essential duty on any oversight board, an essential duty this board has neglected for so long that they’ve forgotten how it’s done.

We are very hopeful that Mr Siegel, the other new commissioners, and the soon-to-be-appointed Independent Review Officer, will bring much needed change to the Police Oversight Commission. At the very least, we hope they can be reminded that questions are to be expected—and answered.