Who holds the police chief or sheriff accountable when it is clear they will not hold their own command staff accountable?
If you want to reform a police department the place to start is the double standard between beat cops and police commanders. This double standard was recently exposed in the City of Albuquerque’s survey of recently retired police officers.
These officers overwhelmingly stated that the No. 1 problem with APD lies with ranking command officers. Albuquerque is not unique; this is a problem that infects police departments nationwide. Beat cops complain that the higher you rise in rank, the less accountable you are for your actions.
Now comes Attorney General Hector Balderas to the rescue. Balderas’ staff told me that they will accept LEA 90 complaints from any citizen. What is an LEA 90? It’s a formal complaint against a New Mexico-certified police officer that is presented to the board that licenses cops, the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board (NMLEA).
Balderas chairs the NMLEA Board. This is transparency and good government in action. By allowing citizens to petition the NMLEA Board, we go a long way in making law enforcement more accountable. The NMLEA Board can suspend or revoke a New Mexico police officer’s certification, if it sustains allegations made in a LEA 90 complaint.
But there is a glaring issue that must be addressed. When you review the meeting minutes of the NMLEA Board, you will find that nearly all of the officers referred to the board for discipline are the lowest-ranking officers – the people with the most contact with the public. Rarely do you ever find police command personnel being referred to the NMLEA Board.
Aside from Tommy Rodella, former sheriff of Rio Arriba County, whose certification was revoked after his conviction on criminal civil rights violations in federal court, I cannot name another command staff officer who had an LEA 90 filed against him or her in recent memory.
Does this mean that police command staff officers never violate rules, policies or law? Of course not. What it means is the good old boy system is in place and those in command protect each other – a double standard of harsh punishment for the beat cop and no punishment for top cops.
Here are some examples of recent NMLEA Board disciplinary meetings. All of these officers had LEA 90 complaints filed on them by the chiefs or sheriffs they work under:
• A patrol officer whose offense was disobeying an order by not turning on his lapel camera.
• Another officer whose crime was writing a blog critical of her command staff.
• A third officer whose offense was reporting misconduct – by his own command staff no less!
Recent news reports have exposed misconduct by police command staff officers around the state but not a single LEA 90 has been filed against command officers by their own department – which should help you understand the significance of Balderas’ decision to allow citizens to make such filings.
Some likely candidates for LEA 90 complaints include the APD police lieutenant who shot and almost killed his own detective during a drug bust, and a former McKinley County sheriff listed in State Auditor Tim Keller’s report for misappropriation of DWI grant money.
Multiple agencies have reported potential wrongdoing by APD police command staff in the procurement of APD Tasers, yet not one police command staff officer has been referred to the NMLEA Board.
The law is clear. Title 10, Section 18.104.22.168 of the New Mexico Administrative Code requires police chiefs and sheriffs to report any acts of misconduct within 30 days. Who holds the police chief or sheriff accountable when it is clear they will not hold their own command staff accountable? Why doesn’t the NMLEA Board instigate a complaint themselves?
Nothing will change for policing in New Mexico until command staff officers are held accountable for their actions. There should only be one standard for all police officers, no matter what their rank. I urge Attorney General Balderas to act immediately to hold the chiefs and sheriffs to the same accountability that they hold their beat cops.
— Dan Klein is a retired Albuquerque police officer.