Oversight Commission: Our Hands Are Tied

Apr 10, 2014

The Police Oversight Commission met yesterday afternoon just hours after the Department of Justice released its findings on Albuquerque’s police force.

Chair *Jeffrey Peterson opened the regularly scheduled meeting with a statement about why the Police Oversight Commission has avoided commenting publicly on Albuquerque Police Department issues. He said the volunteer committee’s members have to skirt the appearance of bias.

Independent Review Officer Robin Hammer told commissioners that she is making the death of James Boyd top priority but that she has little control over when investigations progress. Video of Boyd’s death on March 16 sparked outcry and protests.

Kenneth Ellis, whose son and namesake was killed in 2010, addressed the commission, saying the APD Internal Affairs division is corrupt to the core and that the commission lacks real authority. “This police department and this administration, all the way to the attorney general, have ownership in what’s going on here,” he said. “Police Oversight Commission—no offense ladies and gentlemen, but you’re spinning your wheels. You’re wasting your time.”

Several speakers during the extended public comment period talked about having attended POC meetings for years, and, with frustration, asked the commission what it would do in light of the Justice Department’s conclusions.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

  But commissioners responded that their hands are tied, and their authority is limited by city ordinance.

The Justice Department suggested in its findings that the civilian oversight process must be revised. But it stopped short of outlining exactly what authority a civilian oversight body should have.

At the end of January, a task force appointed by the City Council drew up a list of recommendations. The group indicated that a civilian oversight process requires greater independence. KUNM News also obtained a copy of proposals Commissioner Richard Shine circulated a couple of months earlier. He said a civilian commission should be able to look at both lethal and non-lethal uses of force.

MGT of America took issue with the commission’s “failure to lead” in 2012, and said it should have disciplinary power. Mayor Richard Berry disagreed. The Police Executive Research Forum also indicated in 2011 that all complaints against APD—even anonymous complaints—should be reviewed.

Andres Valdez and New Mexico Vecinos United have been working on police oversight issues for more than 20 years. “I recall vividly when our work began right when there was a spike in shootings, just like the one that is occurring now.”

Vecinos United has analyzed trends over the years, and Valdez said use of force is justified by police chiefs, city councils, mayors and district attorneys. He said there are only two kinds of truly independent models for a review board: A directly elected commission, or a jury-style police commission. “People like you and I should sit on those commissions and determine whether police have used excessive force or have unjustifiably killed somebody.” 

*CORRECTION: This story incorrectly identified the chair of the Police Oversight Commission. The error was made in reporting.