Colleen Aycock is a resident of Four Hills in SE ABQ and organizer of “Women Taking Back Our Neighborhoods” (WTBON), a group founded in 2018 in SE ABQ to inform the public and demand greater accountability from elected and other civic leaders for preventing crime on Central Ave., in our neighborhoods, and in our public parks.
Colleen Aycock received her Ph.D. in Rhetoric from the University of Southern California and spent her professional life writing and teaching writing at the college level, editing business magazines, and writing for the U. S. Capitol. She is a member and co-editor of IBRO (the International Boxing Research Organization), an author of 5 boxing books, and a recipient of the New Mexico Boxing Hall of Fame. She has spent her entire adult life in active civic volunteerism. Ms. Aycock was District Community Service Director for Rotary when she successfully integrated the Bosnian refugees allocated to Texas into Austin during the Clinton administration.
Below is a guest opinion column submitted for publication on this blog by Colleen Aycock. The guest column was written by her after interviewing several active police officers, one who is looking to quit, another retired officer, and a former District Attorney.
EDITOR’S DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are those of Colleen Aycock and do not necessarily reflect those of the political blog www.petedinelli.com. Colleen Aycock was not compensated for his guest column.
COLLEEN AYCOCK GUEST COLUMN
“Fighting Crime with Both Hands Tied Behind Your Back”
Law Enforcement Officers, by the very nature of their title and duties, are expected to enforce the law. We all know how dangerous and demanding this profession is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where homicides are at an all-time high. This city ranks among the top five cities in the country for crime, and ranks higher on the international list than Mexico City or Tijuana. We see APD officers responding to vehicular accidents, drug overdoses, mental health crises, firearm violence, domestic violence, violence against children, and more; inserting themselves into extremely dangerous and often unforeseen situations, because, like it or not, it’s what society requires of them.
In carrying out their duty, officers must understand and remember hundreds of pages of instructions on traffic stops, DWI citations, and critical incidents. Added to that, is the list of 276 requirements under the Dept. of Justice Agreement to reform the Albuquerque Police Department’s “Use of Force” practices. The do’s and don’ts of police work in Albuquerque are simply a mystery to the average person.
Gone are the days when law enforcement officers gave friendly warnings, issued written citations, or simply made arrests and transported people to jail on their own. It may surprise some to know that officers in Albuquerque are not even allowed to make an arrest without first calling their supervisor for approval. If the person in question is underage, the time and chain of command is even more complicated–more than likely causing the officer to walk away from the scene leaving only his business card. Today, under increasingly complicated departmental rules, federal regulations, and threats of lawsuits, officers are required to enforce the law while having their hands tied; yet seeing their duties continuously extend into other services–all while seeing their immunities erode in these various roles.
In addition to their traditional duties, police officers are expected to be any number of professionals and in particular the following:
EMTS, NURSES, and DOCTORS
Police officers are often rendering life-saving first aid before a licensed EMT can arrive. For the most part, the law relieves officers from liability for their actions because they are acting as first responders, often without the life-saving equipment or knowledge they need to solve complex medical issues.
PSYCHIATRISTS AND SOCIAL WORKERS
Police officers are expected to know a book-full of mental illnesses and various drug reactions; locate the appropriate social services; and arrange transportation to hospitals. Officers do this without having any professional degrees in psychology or any professional training as social workers. The only educational requirement is a GED, yet officers are required to make discretionary judgements about individuals in a mental health crisis or on a bad trip, as if they were clinicians or behavioral therapists.
Occasionally, officers are told NOT to do their job. In Albuquerque, officers are not allowed to cite or arrest anyone in possession of drug paraphernalia unless there is a reasonable suspicion of an intent to traffic those drugs. If they see individuals shooting up, they are to assume that the liquid in the needles is not a banned substance. There are no immediate arrests for vagrancy, psychotic behavior, or public drunkenness unless these individuals have harmed others or intend to harm themselves, which makes an officer a fortune teller to determine if the subject needs protective custody—another call to the supervisor.
Oftentimes, someone’s threat is not enough. Officers have to be able to decide if a threat is real. Even then, mandates to “de-escalate” a situation require officers to use therapy skills to talk their way into the consciousness of the subject in order to alter his/her behavior. Are we asking officers to make the best split-second decisions, or go back and recall advanced, textbook therapies during life-threatening situations—to themselves and others? De-escalation is always a laudable goal, but it is not always a possible outcome. We give the officers “discretion,” or choice, in theory, but that theory is not always practical in light of after-the-fact court rulings and DOJ oversight demands.
Police officers as expected to be good writers. Most professional writers spend decades learning the trade and art of writing, but we shouldn’t expect APD officers to have the same kind of training to be able to succeed in law enforcement. But that is not what the courts expect.
Today, officers’ reports not only have to be written such that they detail and assess crime, they have to be written to a legal standard that will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the court. One word of a report might be attacked by the criminal defense attorney and the prosecution’s case is lost. Officers spend a minimum of one hour, and for most reports much longer, to “write up” each event.
During this time, no DA or legal editor is available for them as they draft these reports. And, once filed, additions or corrections are time consuming. The problem is that there is often no person in REAL TIME with sufficient legal knowledge available to help officers write these reports such that they will stand up in court. The public is unaware of the time requirement it takes to document an event with all the evidence. There are no statistics that I am aware of to tell us how big this problem is, except so say, that the police officers say it is a problem.
Police officers face so many situations where time is of the essence. But should deliveries take priority? Should officers be expected to stop whatever they are doing to deliver evidence obtained from the scene to the proper evidence lockers? Or should they be allowed a reasonable time to do so? One such case, that I’m aware of, affected a court outcome because the officer had left evidence in the trunk of his police cruiser overnight. The court heard, but did not accept the fact, that the officer was working an overnight shift and that he promptly deposited the evidence at the end of his shift the next morning, on overtime. The court determined that the evidence was simply left in the police car “unreasonably” long, potentially allowing someone the possibility of tampering with or contaminating the evidence. As a result, the ball of black tar heroin was suppressed from evidence.
When it comes to determining whose decision is the most “reasonable,” many officers find their decisions hanging on the bottom rung, and the public suffers the consequences when criminals are allowed back on the streets because of inadequate evidence or whatever else was thrown out of court, wiping the criminal’s record clean.
Perhaps one of the more egregious examples of officer work duty is the fact that the State of New Mexico, unlike other states, requires law enforcement officers to be legal experts. There are 5 major points that must be considered to understand fully what is expected of APD officers:
1) Lawyers spend years studying the intricacies of the law and developing specialized research skills before they can try a case. Police officers, on the other hand, have no such educational background, nor do they hold a degree in law; but they are required to prosecute criminals (defined as “Officer Prosecution Cases,”) as acting attorneys, in the same courts in Albuquerque against licensed defense attorneys.
Officers enter the field knowing that as arresting officers, they can expect to find themselves in court as witnesses to a crime and the evidence. However, once sworn in as law enforcement officers, they find themselves with their brief-cases going to court as acting attorneys and prosecutors for the city. They act without a law license to prosecute traffic citations, DWI citations, and Misdemeanors (battery, assault, theft, trespassing, illegal drug paraphernalia, etc.) And while the Standard Operating Procedures for APD include a Court Services Unit (SOP 1-31), those services essentially provide Summons, Court Dates, and outgoing documents to the DA’s office for their handling of crime.
Any files created by the CSU for the Officer Prosecutor are given to the Officer 3-10 days prior to trial; not a lot of time to prepare for your court case if only 3 days (especially when your case can be dismissed for failure to deliver discovery to the defense). In court, the arresting and prosecuting officers have no licensed, consulting attorney at their side. They have no legal assistants to help with the more intricate details of the case or to research the defendant’s criminal history.
In one particularly disturbing example in Albuquerque, an officer showed up to try his case, only to find that the defendant was being held in another county. The judge then asked (read “required”) the officer to rearrange court dates and arrange for the outside county to release/transfer the prisoner so that he could be brought to Albuquerque to face charges.
In addition to acting as district attorneys and court secretaries, when full-time officers do go to court, they face defendants who are often lawyered-up with fully licensed defense attorneys with years of experience. Defense attorneys love to face young, inexperienced law enforcement officers in court because the officers are easy to humiliate, outwit, and outgun in legal matters. To add to the insult, officers are required to do these jobs being disproportionately paid. The “Officer Prosecutor” is not earning a lawyer’s wage.
2) Whenever you hear that a criminal case was dismissed because the officer “failed to show up,” be wary. As a prosecutor, an APD officer faces greater degrees of discrimination in case dismissals from the judges they face than does the defense. If a defendant is late to court, the judge forgives the lack of punctuality and extends the time for the defendant to appear for—up to 30 minutes or longer—before he dismisses the case for failure to appear in court. But for the APD officer, if the officer is 5 minutes late, the judge dismisses the case.
In one instance in Albuquerque, the judge started a trial five minutes early; and while the APD officer appeared on time, the judge had already dismissed the case for the officer’s “failure to appear.” This example is an outrageous miscarriage of justice, and the judge should have had his hand slapped. APD officers deserve the same courtesies other lawyers are given. Under this situation, this case should have been appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court for retrial. But then, that would have required the APD law enforcement officer to do another legal task: appeal to the Supreme Court.
3) In the past, many cases were thrown out of court for officers failing to appear because they were called away to an APD priority call. That situation has been corrected to ensure that no law enforcement officer would miss court. Now, the officer is required to prosecute his case in court on his or her days off! Maybe judges should be forced to schedule court cases on their days off to reduce the backlog of cases.
4) The scales of justice are being abused by a civic government too financially taxed to conduct proper legal hearings. The time in court and time spent waiting for a court delay is mentally draining. Many officers spend half of their day or more in court simply waiting for a case to be called, particularly when the lawyers are late and the judge allows the case to slip, even when the judge will not allow the same consideration when the police officer is late.
5) Officers place their lives on the line for the public when arresting and prosecuting law-breaking individuals, only to meet them again on the streets for the same or higher crime in what everyone calls the “revolving door” of our NM justice system. As one source told me, “Empathy now favors the criminal instead of the general public. Laws governing the criminal justice system have weakened the system to the point that is broken and failing.”
Judgement is critical to police work, especially under the DOJ Agreement regarding “Use of Force.” Our moral code tells us that no person is above the law, whether officer or citizen. Common sense lets us recognize excessive use of force when we see it, especially when individuals are significantly “out-manned” and “out-gunned,” be they officers or citizens. And there are no excuses for individuals in those situations.
Unfortunately, violators of the law have also patented the new “Use of Force” mantra, hoping to use that card to get money or get-out-of-jail free. Officers say that almost everyone arrested today tells them they’ve been hurt by the officer. Suspects often encourage officers to shoot or hurt them. We rarely hear the other side.
Consider the death of Officer Daniel Webster on Central and Eubank, one year before the DOJ entered the picture. Officer Webster made a traffic stop involving a motorcycle with a stolen license plate. He pulled over Davon Lymon. When Officer Webster attempted to handcuff Lymon, the man cringed and told the officer he had an injured shoulder, causing the officer to momentarily lessen his grip. Breaking one arm free, Lymon reached into a pocket and pulled out a gun, shooting the Officer multiple times. Did Webster’s sympathy, his faint “use of force,” cause his tragic death?
Use of force is a split-second, complicated decision, with no place for second-guessing. Should the burden of “force” be on the criminal or the officer? These are difficult considerations for anyone, and while a single police encounter occurs in a vacuum, it is viewed disproportionately through the lens of the latest abuse-of -force headlines or social media trends.
In sum, we hire Albuquerque officers to enforce the law in order to protect us. But then, they are told not to enforce the law, not to use their discretion (instead ask the supervisor), told not to cite, not to arrest, not to over-use force; and when something does go wrong, they are told, “You’re on your own!” Then, we exhaust them via overtime on a weekend, holiday, or graveyard shift and demand that they pull over that car with dark windows and no license plate that blew through a red light at 3 a.m., and we demand that they approach the vehicle on foot and peer into an open, driver’s window. Is that something you would care to do?
It’s no surprise that crime in Albuquerque is out of control, when low-level crimes go uncited, arrests are being discouraged, and when an arrest is made, you know you have to go to court on your day off. Is it any wonder why more and more law enforcement officers are leaving for cities not under DOJ requirements, exploitive and suppressive enforcement policies, where immunities are not eroding, where state laws put criminals behind bars, and where judges and politicians do not favor the liberties of repeat offenders over that of victims and the safety of the public they were elected and sworn to serve and protect? As citizens, we must ask ourselves, because the officers are asking: “are the regulations, responsibilities, stand-down rules, and risks in Albuquerque even worth the pay?”
DINELLI COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Colleen Aycock’s well written guest column does indeed capture the essence of the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of police officers. The fact that she wrote the column after interviewing several active APD officers, one who is looking to quit, another retired officer, and a former District Attorney gives great credence to the column what they are confronted with and the difficulty of their jobs. It’s a legitimate question to be asking are we expecting way too much from APD police officers?
In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing by former Police Officer Derek Chauvin and his conviction and the Black Lives Matter movement, there is no doubt APD and all other law enforcement agencies in the country are under intense scrutiny. Extensive media attention and public outrage usually accompanies the most egregious incidents of police misconduct where a civilian ends up dead or the police misconduct is so disturbing and obvious as to result in criminal charges against police officers. It happened in Albuquerque on March 16, 2014 with the killing of mentally ill and homeless camper James Boyd in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains’ by 2 APD SWAT officers. Within less than 24 hours of the killing, the APD Chief declared the killing “justified”. The two APD officers were charged with murder and the jury dead locked on convicting the officers and the charges were dismissed. The city paid out $5 Million to settle the civil lawsuit filed by Boyd family for the use of deadly force.
POLICE WANT AUTONOMY WITH NO CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT
A historical and prevailing philosophy by police is that in order to be able to do their job of “protect and serve”, they need total autonomy from civilian oversight. Law enforcement want to be free from any and all interference by civilians. Police departments want to be an “island unto themselves” and act that way too many times. Historically APD has had a problem with policing themselves and that continues to this day with the reforms required by the Federal Court Approved Settlement Agreement.
It is often argued by many sworn police, usually the unions, that only a “police officer” has the knowledge and experience and can determine the proprietary of another officer’s actions, especially when it comes to use of force and deadly force. The philosophy is that only law enforcement can and should police themselves and it must be left to Police Internal Affairs without civilian involvement.
An argument that is always made is that law enforcement take their lives into their hands and “risk their lives daily” to protect the public. Police also argue they need complete discretion to do their jobs in order to defend themselves, otherwise their hands are tied in combating crime. Truth is, no one forces any one to become a police officer. They know what they were getting themselves into. If any officer feels the risk to life is too great, they probably need to find another line of work. In this day and age of the Black Lives Movement there is no tolerance of abuse of authority and civil right violations used under the guise of “self-defense” by police.
Another pervasive attitude expressed by sworn police is that it’s all “the politician’s fault”. It has been said that “police can no longer move without a politician telling them how to do their jobs”. Another line of attack made by police is when any elected official calls for oversight and accountability is that it is just another politician trying to score points as they run for office. Actions and even criticism by “politicians” and the media are often problematic and resented by police.
What law enforcement fail to understand is how critical civilian oversight is to policing. It is the elected officials, the politicians, who are ultimately held accountable for what cops do. The philosophy of management of police departments must be that “uniforms report to suits” similar to the United States Military where the President as a civilian is the Commander In Chief who also appoints a Secretary of Defense. It also the voters who must hold and demand accountability from both the police and the elected official in that it is the taxpayer that ultimately pays for police misconduct and excessive use of force and deadly force.
The biggest impediment to real police reform is what is referred to as the “blue code of silence.” One of the principles that is emerging from the Black Lives Matter is the “duty to intervene” rule mandating that “by standing or assisting” officers must step in if they observe a fellow officer using excessive force that they believe is not appropriate under the circumstance. It requires the police officer to formally report such incidents to supervisors. Such is the case with APD and the federal mandated reforms under the consent decree.
Many police officers view this as “breaking the blue code of silence”, second guessing, or not backing up the actions of a fellow police officer who is supposed to “have your back”. The derogatory term used by those opposed to such a policy is that it requires police officers to become “snitches” against a fellow officer and falls into the dangerous philosophy of “your either with me or against me” to avoid any and all accountability for police misconduct.
Our law enforcement community, including APD, the Sheriffs and State Police, must understand with complete clarity that police brutality, excessive use of force and deadly force based on racial profiling and the presumption of guilt because of a person’s color and not evidence will not and shall not be tolerated ever.
Rank and file police officers who see racism by another officer need to object to it and report it. No Hispanic, no African American and no person of color should ever feel uncomfortable talking to any police officer or call the police to ask for help or to report a crime. There must never be an attitude and presumption of guilt based on a person’s ethnicity. Police must have the attitude and recognize that performing their motto to “serve and protect” is not based on or determined by a person’s skin color.
Times and methods of policing are changing fast when it comes to police work and those that have been in the profession for any length of time need to understand that and adapt to it. Basic policing methods are changing dramatically incorporating constitutional policing practices taught and mandated. Without those changes, this country will continue to endure and see more cases like the killing George Floyd by police.
Only until APD becomes in complete compliance with the mandated reforms of the federal Court Approved Settlement Agreement (CASA) will APD be able to fight crime without violating people’s civil rights and thereby allow the dismissal of the DOJ consent decree. One thing for certain is that only APD management, the police union and all APD police officers can make the consent decree actually work and have the court dismiss it sooner rather than later.