There's little disagreement as to the need for reform. Fatal police interactions with Ameila Baca (settled for $2.5 million) and Antonio Valenzuela (settled for $6.5 million) have cost taxpayers $9 million, and taken beloved members from two families.
Jonathan Strickland survived being shot 12 times by police, but Presley C. Eze Jr. was shot in the back of the head and killed after a scuffle with police that started with a can of beer stolen from a convenience store. That has led the local chapter of the NAACP to request a federal investigation into allegations that there is a pattern of civil rights abuses committed by police. I don’t believe we need the same level of oversight as Albuquerque, but I do hope the feds will at least look into the charges.
The city’s current system of police oversight has been outsourced to a private firm called the OIR Group. They audit the city’s process for handling complaints and recommend systematic improvements, but don’t actually look into the complaints themselves.
There is no outside investigation in cases where the actions of police result in death. Those continue to be investigated by a task force of fellow officers from the same or nearby departments They conduct a secret investigation, then file a secret report that inevitably leads to a public declaration by the District Attorney that the officer had done nothing wrong.
The only time the public gets to hear any of the details is if the lawsuit filed against the city goes to court. And that is usually prevented by multi-million dollar settlements at the expense of city taxpayers who remain in the dark.
A civilian review board would be one solution to that problem. The question is, would it be the best solution.
A 2001 report by the Department of Justice found there had been an increase in the use of civilian review boards, but noted that, “many of these procedures have a troubled history involving serious - even bitter - conflict among the involved parties.”
There is a mixed history as to the effectiveness of civilian review boards around the nation. Given the proper organization, funding and mission, a civilian review board here could play a small role in the overall reform effort. But it won’t solve the problem of who determines accountability following fatal interactions with police.
Recent legislation introduced in Santa Fe would have moved the investigation of police killings from the local agencies to the State Law Enforcement Academy. That would allow for a more unbiased and detached review.
I don’t know if the recent spate of fatal or near-fatal interactions represents a pattern or is an unfortunate coincidence. But the response by police leadership has done little to reassure residents.
This fall, we will elect a mayor and three positions on the City Council. Both police reform and crime reduction will undoubtedly be on the minds of voters. Candidates need to be thinking about how we can increase accountability without interfering with the vital work that police officers do every day.
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com
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