EDITORS NOTE: Freelance reporter Charles Arasim contributed to this blog article regarding the Citizens Police Oversight Agency. He is a citizen police oversight advocate, and as such was recognized by the Department of Justice when the Court Approved Settlement Agreement was negotiated. Mr. Arasim has scrutinized the process and usefulness of the Police Oversight Ordinance and Agency.
EVOLUTION OF CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT OF APD
It was in 1987, as a result of an excessive number of civil lawsuits and millions in civil judgements against the City and APD for excessive use of force and violations of civil rights that the first effort was made by the Albuquerque City Council to have civilian oversight and investigations of citizens’ complaints against sworn APD police officers. The city ordinance was sponsored by then Albuquerque City Councilor Pete Dinelli and took the form of Independent Review Officer or Independent Counsel. The ordinance was strenuously objected to by then Mayor Ken Schultz, then APD Chief Sam Baca and the Police union but passed on a 9-0 bipartisan vote. The very first Independent Review Officer was then former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Bill Reardon. Over the years, civilian police oversight has evolved.
The Civilian Police Oversight Agency (CPOA) was established in 2014 after the City of Albuquerque amended its Police Oversight Ordinance. As a result, the new Police Oversight Ordinance replaced the former Police Oversight Commission (POC) with the new Police Oversight Board (POB) and the former Independent Review Office (IRO) with the new Civilian Police Oversight Agency.
The Civilian Police Oversight Agency is an independent agency of City Government, not part of either the City Administration or City Council that consists of a Police Oversight Board and an Administrative Office led by the Civilian Police Oversight Agency Executive Director.
The Civilian Police Oversight Agency receives, investigates and reviews complaints and commendations submitted by community members for/against the Albuquerque Police Department. The Civilian Police Oversight Agency also reviews Albuquerque Police Department policies, practices, and procedures, making recommendation to the Chief of Police.
Ever since the creation of the Police Oversight Board and the Police Oversight Commission in 2014, both have been plagued by political turmoil, resignations and membership and staffing turnover. Both have been plagued with constant resistance from the Albuquerque Police Department management and all too often completely ignored by the APD Chief and executive staff as well as the Mayor and City Council.
Within the last year, the Albuquerque City Council began efforts to try and fix the Police Oversight Agency ordinance. On February 23, 2022, the Albuquerque City Council voted to defer all action on amending the Civilian Police Oversight Agency Ordinance for two weeks to allow consideration of other changes. The CPOA ordinance will be heard at the next regular meeting of the City Council on March 7, 2022. The blunt truth is that the Albquerquerqu City Council is attempting to to fix the unfixable.
THE CPOA AND THE DOJ
On November 14, 2014, the City of Albuquerque and the Department of Justice (DOJ) entered into a Court Approve Settlement (CASA) mandating 271 reforms of the Albuquerque Police Department APD. The settlement was a result of a year’s long investigation of the APD and findings of “excessive use of force” and deadly for and a “culture of aggression.”
The link to the settlement is here:
A major reform measures mandated the creation of a full time, professional Civilian Police Oversight Agency (CPOA) with a full time Director and investigators and with a 9-member, all-volunteer, civilian Police Oversight Board appointed by the city council. The CPOA board is ultimately responsible for investigations of police misconduct and making recommendations to the Chief of Police for disciplinary actions. The board also reviews investigations and examines APD policy and procedures.
The major goal of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency and its board is that it’s to be the outside entity watching over the APD department when the Federal Court Approved Settlement Agreement is finally dismissed and the Federal Court appointed Independent Federal Monitor is no longer necessary. As it stands, it will likely be another 5 years before the case can be dismissed primarily because of APD’s failures to implement the reforms and met the compliance levels mandated.
Since its inception, the CPOA and it’s all volunteer board has been in a constant state of turmoil. The turmoil has included sharp turnover of board members and understaffing at the agency. At one point there were only two investigators with the agency, leading to a dramatic decline in the number of cases they completed.
Interim director Diane McDermott has said the CPOA is now fully staffed with 6 investigators. Three of those investigators were recently hired and have not yet begun to take cases.
In addition to reviewing complaints, CPOA board members make policy recommendations. An APD spokesman said since April 2019, APD had received recommendations for 10 policy changes and revised two policies in response.
CPOA CHAIRMAN AND 3 BOARD MEMBERS RESIGN
On December 9, 2021, Eric Olivias, the Chairman Of Civilian Police Oversight Agency (CPOA) Board submitted his letter of resignation. In addition to Olivias resigning, two others CPOA Board member resigned within a 48-hour period and they are Tara Jaramillo-Prewitt and Geonie Ralph. A 3rd newly appointed CPOA Board member Richard Johnson who was appointed to the Board at the same time as Gionnne Ralph is reported have to have silently walked away from the CPOA Board on or about November 1, 2021.
The Olivia’s letter is a scathing indictment of the CPOA. The resignation comes less than 2 months after CPOA Executive Director Ed Harness resigned and less than one month after Superintendent Of Police Reform Sylvester Stanley announced his retirement at the end of December.
CPOA CHAIRMAN LETTER OF RESIGNATION
Below are pertinent portions Olivias letter of resignation. Because of the length of the resignation letter, capitalized and bold headlines were added for clarity to assist the reader.
[BADLY BROKEN PROCESS]
“First and foremost, let me state that I am not resigning for personal reasons, but rather because I believe this process is badly broken and many persons, policies, and politics have led to that breakdown. This is not a Civilian Police Oversight Board as it is titled, rather this Board is a Civilian Police Advisory Board. The Board has no oversight authority over APD, it can issue recommendations for discipline and policy, but all recommendations are non-binding and can be dismissed, as they often are, by the Chief of Police. No matter the evidence presented, the Board is able to have little effect on the actual operations of APD.”
[BOARD HAS TOO MANY RESPONSIBILITIES TO FUNCTION]
“The Board itself is tasked with far too many responsibilities. The City Council erred in assigning so many tasks and responsibilities to the Board and its members and then restricted its ability to function by limiting the number of committees that Board members may serve on. Further, the list of training required for Board members is far too ambitious for unpaid volunteers. This requirement skews the membership of the Board towards retirees and those who are independently wealthy, hardly a subset reflective of our diverse community. For example, the required Civilian Police Academy course occurs two times per week over the course of 3 months adding up to nearly 60 hours of training including topics such as the Horse Mounted Unit and Impact Investigations. These are important units of APD, no doubt, but is knowledge of them required for Board service? Hardly. To be a fully functional and well-informed member of this Board an individual needs approximately 20 hours a week minimum to devote to Board service.”
[CITIZENS VOLUNTEER BOARD LEADS TO FAILURE]
“The Board has members who cannot and do not devote the time required to serve, and it clearly shows. Some members come to meetings completely unprepared and have not reviewed materials or have only done a surface review. Recently I learned that one member who had been voting on cases for 6 months, only recently learned how to access case materials and findings letters after contacting agency staff. After spending months correcting faulty training records and regaining compliance on training requirements, just one member can set back the efforts of the Board immensely. Despite the obvious deliberate non-compliance of some members, many Board members refuse to hold those members responsible accountable. One member went so far as to say that CPOA staff should be checking in with new members on a weekly basis and another wondered whether access to a computer was a reason for non-compliance with training requirements. To be a member of this Board, some basic skills, self-accountability, and self-reliance must be had. If the Board can’t hold itself accountable, why would anyone entrust the Board with real power to hold APD accountable?”
[POORLY DESIGNED CITY COUNCIL PROCESSS]
“The City Council has designed a bad process. From the appointment process, to training, and of course the long list of responsibilities delegated to the Board, the Civilian Police Oversight Ordinance in Albuquerque is broken. Efforts are underway to nibble at the edges of the problem, but frankly the proposed amendments to the ordinance hit at the low hanging fruit and do nothing to give a meaningful role to Civilian Oversight of Police in Albuquerque. On numerous and repeated attempts to arrange meetings with City Councilors to discuss issues with the CPOAB several never even responded, of those that did respond and meet, 3 will no longer be on the Council at the end of this month. It is clear from meetings with councilors and even more clear from public statements, that many councilors do not understand the ordinance they wrote. In one recent meeting a Councilor went so far as to state that the members of the CPOAB, “hold the lives and livelihoods of officers in their hands.” This statement would be funny if it wasn’t so ignorant of how the process really works. Other Councilors have made similar statements indicating that they do not have a good understanding of how the CPOA Ordinance is written and how it works in practice. If City Councilors want a strong and effective Civilian Oversight process in Albuquerque, I would urge them to listen to those that know best including, but not limited to Board Members.”
[FEDERAL MONITOR, DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, POLICE UNION PART OF PROBLEM]
“Despite serious issues within the Board, the greatest problems in this process lie within the parties of the CASA including the Monitor, the USDOJ, the APOA, and the City. While training records for the Board have been incomplete for nearly 2 years, only in [Independent Monitor’s Report 14] is the issue formally raised. In IMR-13 the issue was raised during informal meetings. Has the monitor really been doing its job if it took two years to note that training records were out of date? Moreover, the monitor has provided conflicting guidance. Criticizing the Board for spending too much time reviewing cases while in the next paragraph applauding the Board for catching serious deficiencies in an Agency investigation during its case review process. … Why has the monitor not held the City out of compliance for not filling Board positions and not publishing a clear and transparent process for how applicants will be screened and vetted? The City has promised action on this for years, none has been taken, yet the monitor is silent.”
[DOJ AND CITY ATTORNEY MEDDLING]
“The USDOJ meddles in Board business as it sees fit. When the Assistant US Attorney didn’t like an ill-informed statement that a new member made in a committee meeting, USDOJ rallied the City Attorney and others to its cause insisting that this was a sign of the Board being complacent, rather than looking to City Council as to how such a poorly informed and biased member was appointed to this Board in the first place. The assistant US Attorney has also made statements in support of the now departed Executive Director, while failing to recognize that the Board cannot comment on such matters given Personnel protections.”
“The City Attorney has also meddled in Board business despite the professed need for independence of the Board. The City Attorney has all but declared that the current training provided to the Board is inadequate. Without stating what about the training was/is inadequate, the City Attorney has convinced all the parties that the City Attorney is better suited to provide training to the Board, despite obvious issues with the independence of the Board. However, when the assistance of the City Attorney was requested to address APD not providing required CPA training to the Board by a more accessible virtual means during the pandemic, the response indicated that it would be inappropriate for the City Attorney to intervene on the Board’s behalf given its independent status. The City Attorney has provided inaccurate information to City Council on Board training compliance, despite being provided evidence to the contrary. On numerous occasions the City Attorney has lectured and belittled the Board and myself about its shortcomings and lack of priorities. This criticism came from one of the primary parties responsible for the compliance of the City of Albuquerque with the CASA, despite improvements in CASA compliance being stalled for the last 1.5 years.”
[GREATEST FAULT LIES WITH APD]
“Despite the many parties failing in their obligations in this process the greatest fault lies with the Albuquerque Police Department, mainly its Executive Leadership. Rather than appoint leaders with real experience in reforming a large police department the current mayoral administration chose a union endorsed insider.
More concerning is the bloat and constant turnover in APD command staff. When the current mayoral administration began their tenure they proclaimed that they were reforming the APD organizational chart. They accused the prior administration of having a bloated and top-heavy command that left the field short-handed. …. There are more deputy chiefs and chiefs of staff and deputy chiefs of staff than I care to mention.
Then there are public safety advisors, public safety liaisons, public information officers, and the list goes on and on. The current organizational structure makes the past administration look efficient by comparison. The solution to every problem has been to create and staff a new high-level, at-will position.”
… Nearly every week we learn that some high-level commander has been reassigned, retired, or resigned. The training academy, a perennial issue of concern in the monitor’s reports, has had 4 commanders in 4 years. Some commanders last a matter of months, others even less than that. How can an organization project stability and good function when nothing about it is stable or consistent? How can we hold field officers accountable when command staff changes on a whim and guidance from said command staff can change on a dime depending on who is in charge and what stimuli they are responding to.”
STONEWALLING IS ENGRAINED IN APD
“While the Board is charged with evaluating and making recommendations on APD Policy, APD has consistently stonewalled the Board on basic data requests. The Board has requested data on the expensive and untested Shotspotter program only to be given a letter assuring the Board that all procurement processes were followed (with no evidence) and a short briefing emphasizing that the program was too new to offer full statistics and analysis.
When you don’t have enough officers to respond to the actual calls in the system, why purchase a complicated and expensive system to generate even more (lower priority) calls? The Board has, on numerous occasions, requested data on the K9 unit. Given the high rate of injuries (to civilians and APD personnel) and frequent settlements, having the Board look at this unit and its policy would seem to be a no-brainer, yet APD has stonewalled for nearly a year. What is APD hiding, or are they just that bad at keeping records? The Board has also requested records on traffic stops including data on fines collected, injuries, shootings, etc. Once again, APD has stonewalled this request and avoided accountability. Lastly, despite years of reporting on overtime abuse at APD, spearheaded by a CPOA Investigation, little action has been taken to implement meaningful reforms to the APD Overtime process.”
APD IS BROKEN
“APD is broken. Not because of the brave and hardworking men and women who serve the community as field officers, detectives, and front-line supervisors, but because of a command staff focused on politics and micromanagement. There is no accountability for the organization as a whole.
The City Council seems convinced that throwing money at APD will solve all the problems. Despite the City Council budgeting the department for hundreds more officers each year, that goal has never been met. APD blames the national recruiting environment and no-one asks questions.
City Council buys APD a new helicopter, a new communication system, gadgets like ShotSpotter, and more, yet City Council never asks hard questions as to how violent crime rates continue to rise, recruitment struggles, and progress towards meeting the requirements of the CASA are non-existent.
I believe the answer to these good questions City Council refuses to ask is relatively simple: bad leadership. When officers don’t feel supported and valued and they see the churn and burn at the top, why would they not assume that they are expendable to the organization at the first sign of trouble? Yes the organization must discipline and remove bad officers, but it must also show that it is stable and supportive of those doing their jobs correctly and to the best of their ability. “
[NEED COMPETANT COMMANDERS]
“APD must install commanders that are competent and assure them some stability to implement and oversee changes. The APD Chief should be appointed to 6, 8, or even a 10-year term to give the department the stability it needs and to attract top-tier candidates interested in leading the department for the long-run, not just padding their PERA with a few high paying years. Lower-level commanders should also be afforded more job stability so that they can actually see-through reforms they implement. The APD budget must be scrutinized and funding for fancy gadgets and at-will positions must be trimmed back while emphasizing recruitment and retention of field officers and investigators.”
“The [Civilian Police Oversight Agency Board and Civilian Police Oversight Agency] CPOAB/CPOA Ordinance must be reformed to narrow the focus of the Board. The training requirements of the Board should be pared back, but front loaded. Before someone is allowed to vote on cases, they should be trained on the policies and processes that govern that review. The current training requirement of 6 months after appointment is akin to allowing an officer to join the force and begin patrolling the streets with a badge and a gun before being trained, we all think that would be crazy, but for CPOA Board Members that is exactly what we allow, if Board members ever complete their training in the first place. Board members should be compensated for their time with generous stipends tied to completing training and attending meetings. If this city wants a professional CPOAB, it should pay for it. Paying Board Members also helps to break down barriers to entry allowing a more diverse slate of membership. Board Members should be required to sponsor and attend community outreach events. Most importantly, the Board must be empowered to make binding decisions on policy and discipline. What is the point of Civilian Oversight if it is purely non-binding and advisory?”
[TONE DOWN THE RHETORIC]
“The last point I wish to make is that parties in this process need to step back and tone down the rhetoric. The process is so rife with finger pointing and backstabbing that I’m not sure any of the primary parties involved is actually interested in the stated goal of ensuring that Albuquerque has constitutional community policing. If the parties actually listened and tried to understand one-another it might become apparent that most of those involved want the same thing.
It is possible that many individuals involved in the process have made mistakes and many parts of this process are flawed. No one group is solely responsible for failures, yet each group takes great pride in blaming others. If the real goal is to achieve constitutional community policing for Albuquerque, shouldn’t the process involve adopting the best ideas and practices regardless of who came up with them? The parties need to move on from failures with constructive solutions instead of getting bogged down in assigning blame and scapegoating. I hope this reform process is successful, it needs to be, for the sake of our officers and our community.”
CPOA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR RESIGNS
It was on October 15 that CPOA Executive Director Ed Harness announced his resignation and left his job on November 15. In his resignation announcement, Harness gave a blistering condemnation of the board. Harness resigned because he had requested to be reappointed as executive director but instead the board opened the position to other applicants, a move he said was done without consulting stakeholders, the City Council, or the Department of Justice.
In his resignation announcement to the board, Harness said:
“[What is] most shameful is the fact that you didn’t even have enough respect to speak with any member of the CPOA staff – the people that do all the work to support your efforts. … This decision has permanently damaged the relationship between the agency and the board. … [Under my leadership the CPOA] has been restored to its rightful place as a meaningful oversight body … and has been applauded by the Department of Justice and the independent monitor] … You will set back the organization and its ability to maintain compliance with the [court approved settlement agreement] … because being executive director of the CPOA is not a plug-and-play position.”
CITY COUNCIL ATTEMPTS TO FIX THE UNFIXABLE
On February 23, it was reported that the Albuquerque City Council was attempting to fix the Civilian Police Oversight Agency by making changes to the ordinance creating the agency.
City Councilor Brook Bassan, who sponsored the ordinance along with Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton, said there are two significant changes that were being considered:
1. Reduce the board from nine members to seven and directing the agency to only investigate complaints concerning sworn officers, not civilian personnel.
2. Removed the directive that CPOA board members shall review and approve or amend findings of all agency investigations.
The CPOA is required to publish semiannual reports, however the 2021 data has yet to be made public. Interim CPOA director Diane McDermott said throughout last year there had been only 3 cases where investigators found policy violations, where the police chief differed, sending a letter of non-concurrance. McDermott added that the Chief Medina’s non-concurrances have increased in recent months. According to McDermott, this sometimes could be due to the department not wanting to hold an officer accountable but there could also be aggravating or mitigating factors that she is not aware of.
Interim CPOA director Diane McDermott, in response to the accusations made former chairman Eric Olivias that the agency was broken, said without the agency there is no process for citizens to lodge a complaint against an officer and get it investigated. McDermott said in Albuquerque the goal isn’t necessarily to discipline certain officers but to improve policing department wide and said:
“The department needs to be accountable for how it conducts its policing. … So it may not be that one officer, it may be the department’s failure on something.”
City Councilor Brook Basaan had this to say about the changes:
“I absolutely think these changes are going to make a significant improvement – at least I’m hopeful they will, … I think that just streamlining their case load based off of the requirements in the [Court Approved Settlement Agreement] will help minimize some of the burden and what was described as the setup of failure.”
Chantal Galloway, who is the new civilian volunteer chairperson of the CPOA Board, told federal judge James Browning at the February 9 on the 14th Federal Monitors Report, that CPOA has found itself as a “catch all for things deemed problematic,” and she told the Court:
“Oftentimes, we’re dedicating upwards of 60 to 80 hours per month to this process because we believe it’s important and that the community needs an outlet and a voice when it comes to policing in Albuquerque. It’s difficult to remain committed when our efforts are either dismissed or outright undermined by other members engaged in this process.”
CPOA board member Dr. William Kass, a retired Sandia Labs physicist, said the board is supposed to split its time between policy development and complaints, but in practice the complaints were eating up the majority of its attention. According to Kass:
“I think the power of the board lies in its ability to persuade APD to change policies or improve their training or become a better department. … I think that’s built by building relationships between the board, agency, APD and the community.”
The link to quoted news source material is here:
COMMENTARY BY CHARLES ARASIM ON POLICE OVERSIGHT AGENCY
“It is obvious the City has failed in correcting APD structural and systemic deficiencies of insufficient oversight, inadequate training, and ineffective policies that contributed to the 2014 DOJ Investigative Report findings that APD engaged in a pattern and practice of excessive use of force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
In the most recent report Independent Monitors Report, IMR-14, dated November 12, 2021, the Federal Monitor reviewed the CASA requirement that the city shall implement a civilian police oversight agency … that provides meaningful, independent review of all citizen complaints, serious uses of force, and officer involved shootings by APD and shall also review and recommend changes to APD policy and monitor long-term trends in APD’s use of force. The Federal Monitor reported the CPOA failed to meet the requirements and is in “non-operational compliance,” meaning the adherence to policies is not apparent in the day-to-today operation of the agency.
Seven years of existence has not resulted in quality, rigor, or consistency in processes by the Board or the Executive Director’s office when conducting civilian complaint investigations or review of APD findings in serious uses of force or officer involved shooting incidents.”
FINAL COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
After the passage of a full 7 years of the court approved settlement as well as the tumultuous history of the Citizen’s Police Oversight Commission that was mandated by the Court Approved Settlement Agreement, it has become painfully obvious that CPOA and its board of voluntary citizens has become so dysfunctional as to be irreparable and irrelevant. It is not at all likely any of changes or amendments to the CPOA ordinance will have any impact on any of the numerous problems identified Eric Olivas, the former Chairman Of Civilian Police Oversight Agency.
It is personalities and hidden agendas that make both the agency and the civilian volunteer board dysfunctional. Adding to the disfunction is more than a little politics thrown into the mix by the Mayor, the City Council, the Chief and his high command and union opposition to any and all kind of civilian oversight. The civilian board has never had any ability to to persuade APD to change policies or improve their training given the extent the Mayor and APD ignore it and undercut it.
The investigation of police misconduct cases and all use of force cases and serious bodily harm cases should be done by “civilian” personnel investigators not by Internal Affairs nor by the Citizens Police Oversight Agency or the Board. The function and responsibility for investigating police misconduct cases and violations of personnel policy and procedures by sworn police should be assumed by the Office of General Council in conjunction with the City Human Resources Department and the Office of Internal Audit where necessary. The Office of Independent Council would make findings and recommendations to the Chief of Police for implementation and imposition of disciplinary action.
A link to a related blog article is here: