In Albuquerque, the city’s attempt to establish successful citizen oversight is its third in 30 years. An oversight board from the 1980s was dismantled in 1999 after another string of fatal shootings by police and replaced with a new oversight office that was supposed to be more effective.
“It was thought of as a joke,” Mike Gomez, whose unarmed son Alan was shot and killed in 2011 by police, said of that era’s civilian oversight. He said the group never issued a report related to his son’s killing, and the city later settled the family’s lawsuit for $900,000.
Under the 2014 federal settlement, Albuquerque officials agreed to remake the civilian group into the Civilian Police Oversight Agency to help rein in the troubled department.
Many of its responsibilities are similar to those of the old office: The agency, governed by a volunteer board, is empowered to investigate citizen complaints and required to review all shootings and serious use-of-force cases after police officials have investigated them. The agency can also recommend punishment, but the police chief has the final say.
Trouble for the new agency started as soon as it was established.
The Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association sued the city, asking the courts to invalidate parts of the ordinance that created the agency, saying it would violate the union’s contract. The union dropped the suit after city councilors amended the ordinance to assure officers that the oversight board would keep certain internal police files secret.
In 2019, the union sent a letter to the president of the agency’s board demanding that another member, Chelsea Van Deventer, resign. They accused her of anti-police bias based on her Twitter account. In one post, she used foul language in response to a bill that would have made assaulting police officers a hate crime. At the time, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the union’s demand “smacks of an attempt to dismantle systems of police oversight in Albuquerque.”
Van Deventer resigned months later, she said, because she took a job as a prosecutor, which may have prohibited her from serving on the board.
Shaun Willoughby, the president of the union, stood by the labor group’s actions, saying officers felt “bullied and attacked” by Van Deventer. He also defended the union’s 2015 lawsuit because some of the oversight agency’s proposed powers “would have violated officers’ rights.” The union, he said, is opposed to allowing civilian boards to discipline or fire officers.
“We welcome civilian oversight and input and believe that discipline should remain with the chain of command within a police department,” Willoughby said.
James Ginger, a court-appointed monitor who reviews the police department’s progress under the federal agreement, has credited the independent agency and its board for providing oversight. But in his latest report, in November, he said it was at a “straining point,” likely needed more staffing and had produced several deficient investigations of civilian complaints.
Of the 27 fatal shootings by police since 2015, the civilian oversight agency and its board have completed reviews and issued findings for five cases, according to public documents. In all five, the board voted to exonerate the officers of violations related to using their weapons.
The oversight agency’s failure to review use-of-force cases and inadequate investigations are two of the reasons Valerie St. John, a private investigator, said she resigned from the governing board in December 2019.
“I reached a point where I wasn’t being effective, and you ask yourself, ‘Why are you here?’” said St. John, who spent 2½ years serving on the old and new civilian oversight boards.
Veronica Ajanel said she is still waiting for the board to review the March 30, 2020, killing of her father, Valente Acosta-Bustillos. The family had asked police to check on Acosta-Bustillos, whom officers knew from his previous episodes of mental illness. Officers followed him into his home to arrest him after they discovered he had an outstanding warrant. When an officer tried to use his Taser, Acosta-Bustillos swung a shovel at them and one of the officers shot the 52-year-old man, according to video from a body-worn camera.