Oversight group claims APD Chief not following officer discipline explanation rules

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a rule that’s clearly spelled out in the Albuquerque Police Department’s settlement agreement with the Department of Justice.

When addressing cases where the new citizen-comprised Police Oversight Board suggests discipline for police officers, the Albuquerque Police chief is supposed to give his reasoning when he disagrees with the board’s suggestions.

However, board members and the board’s investigative agency say APD Chief Gorden Eden hasn’t been following that rule in accordance with the settlement agreement. It now has the city promising change, again.

From the beginning, when Albuquerque Police and Department of Justice officials announced they had reached a settlement agreement written across 106 pages, APD made it clear that it would accept the long list of reforms.

“Our mutual goal was to get this agreement right,” said Albuquerque Police Chief Eden during a news conference in October 2014. “We made it a choice, and that choice was to meet, discuss, even argue, but to agree… agree to these significant changes.”

The city’s top brass also tried to emphasize that APD’s reforms are a shared community responsibility.

“We need the community’s help to foster positive change,” said Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry. “I’m asking our community, please join us in our efforts.”

Since February 2015, the Police Oversight Board has been doing its part, as one board member says to “speak on the behalf of the community.” The nine member, volunteer board is made up of various Albuquerque citizens who work independent from Albuquerque Police. The board reviews police policy, use of force and deadly shooting cases, but mostly citizen complaints against officers.

“We get to see all the evidence,” said Joanne Fine, a member of the Police Oversight Board.

Fine was appointed to the board in February 2015. She’s been connected to Albuquerque Police-related projects in past, helping develop and open the city’s “Family Advocacy Center,” an office-based partnership between the United Way organization and Albuquerque Police. The center mission is to help “serve victims of interpersonal violence.”

“There’s a real investigation done by investigators on our agency staff, we have access to all the records, we have access to everything, and we make a fair and impartial judgement about what we find,” said Fine, speaking of the work done by the Police Oversight Board, and its investigative agency, the “Civilian Police Oversight Agency.”

As part of the DOJ settlement agreement, the Feds gave the Police Oversight Board more teeth, or enhanced power. Under new rules the city agreed to, the POB can force the police chief to consider the board’s recommendations in regards to policy and discipline. Under the city’s old “Police Oversight Commission,” the APD chief was not required to respond to any of the commission’s recommendations.

“In the past, (the) chief could just decide and not tell the public anything,” said Fine.

Under the new APD-DOJ settlement agreement, when the Police Oversight Board submits any disciplinary recommendations against APD officers to the APD police chief, the chief is required to review and consider it. If he disagrees, the settlement agreement says, “the chief must provide a written report to the agency articulating the reasons its recommendations were not followed.”

READ: APD-DOJ Settlement Agreement excerpt – Civilian Police Oversight Agency rules

The rules were further spelled out in the “Policies and Procedures for the Civilian Police Oversight Agency.” Those rules were unanimously passed by the nine members of Albuquerque City Council in 2015. In regards to POB suggestions of officer discipline, the rules state: “if the Chief does not follow the POB’s disciplinary recommendation, the Chief shall respond in writing, within thirty (30) days, with the reason as to why the recommended discipline was not imposed.”

READ: Civilian Police Oversight Agency policies and procedure ordinance

KRQE News 13 Reporter Chris McKee asked Police Oversight Board member Joanne Fine how she interprets the ordinance.

“I read that that they send us a letter to the board, and that’s not happened,” said Fine.

The issue was brought to light at an October 10, 2016 Albuquerque City Council Finance and Government Operations Committee meeting. Ed Harness, the executive director of Police Oversight Board’s investigative arm (Civilian Police Oversight Agency), raised the issue with city councilors.

“We are not currently getting a direct letter or explanation from the Chief (Eden,)” said Harness.

While the POB has been catching up on its review of a “backlog” of citizen complaints, use of force and police shooting cases, so far, there have been three cases reported and reviewed in 2016 where APD Chief Eden has not agreed with all of the POB’s findings.

“What we get are notes through the command staff and then the ultimate determination by the Chief, but, there is not a direct communication from the Chief to the oversight board, as to the Chief’s rationale,” said Harness.

APD’s command staff has addressed each POB case in writing, in some form. However, two of the cases were addressed in letters written by Deputy Chief Bob Huntsman, that were sent to CPOA Executive Director Ed Harness. The other case was addressed by Chief Eden, however, it was in a memo that was not addressed to anyone. None of those “notes” were ever directly addressed or sent to the Police Oversight Board.

By nature, those notes aren’t available to the public either. Instead, according to Harness, the letters have been inserted in the APD officer’s internal affairs file.

While Harness has been able to access those notes in private IA files in his capacity as an investigator, then post them online, POB member Joanne Fine feels the process isn’t following the settlement agreement and city ordinance. She believes the rules specifically call for the chief to write a letter directly to the POB.

READ: Police Oversight Board officer discipline “non-concurrence” notes from APD command staff

“The bottom line is, by not writing a letter to us, they’re disrespecting the civilians that are in this community trying to get to a better place in the relationship with the police department,” said Fine.

“I can understand her feeling on that,” said Albuquerque City Councilor Brad Winter.

Councilor Winter helped write the ordinance detailing the POB’s policies and procedures, to include the rule calling specifically for the APD chief to send a letter directly to the board, responding to his rationale when he didn’t follow any disciplinary recommendations.

“I think the ordinance speaks for itself,” said Winter. “He’s (the APD Chief) the ultimate, he’s in charge, and so it’s important to really get that letter from the chief to explain why they didn’t take it for the transparency.”

KRQE News 13 wanted Chief Eden to explain why he hasn’t been writing letters directly to the POB, and requested an interview on Friday morning.

While the department offered to make a spokeswoman available on Thursday afternoon, it said Chief Eden was too busy for an interview. KRQE News 13 took the issue to Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry.

“Well, that needs to happen, yeah that needs to happen, there’s no question about it,” said Mayor Berry, when asked about the chief’s written correspondence. “We see the role of the POB as being incredibly important.”

While Mayor Berry told KRQE News 13 that he didn’t know exactly why the Chief hasn’t responded directly to the POB in discipline related cases, the Mayor said he would address the issue.

“You know, we’ll look into it and find out why that, one, didn’t happen number one, and if it needs to come from Chief, or if it’s been delegated, then he needs to explain that to the POB, and I’m sure he’ll be able to do that,” said Mayor Berry.

KRQE News 13 also questioned the Mayor about if he thought it was disrespectful toward the process of citizen involvement, a process that the Mayor has continued to call for throughout APD’s reform.

“Well, I think a couple of things, it shouldn’t be taken as any kind of sign of a disrespect, I mean you know we meet on a regular basis in the administration and talk about these communications,” said Mayor Berry.

The Mayor chalked up the “POB Letters” issue to a work in progress that can be easily fixed.

“I’ll make sure I get with Chief, and get some answers,” said Mayor Berry.

Shortly after KRQE News 13 spoke to Mayor Berry, an APD spokeswoman told News 13 that the police department would start sending letters to “all the members of the POB.” The department also sent the following statement:

“We agree fully with the nature of the agreement. We’ve reached out to the CPOA and POB to further improve our collaborative processes. We are committed to working with them, ensuring we are responsive to their requests.”

–Celina Espinoza, Communications & Community Outreach Director, Albuquerque Police Department.

For POB member Joanne Fine, she hopes the department and the chief keep their promise.

“Well, you’re not a police officer in a vacuum, you know, you’re the police department for this community, and this community has concerns,” said Fine.

To view the website where the Civilian Police Oversight Agency has posted copies of APD’s redacted “non-concurrence” letters, click here.

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