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Local Viewpoints

Time for Civilian Police Oversight Board in Las Cruces

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Peter Goodman
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Commentary:

The tragic shooting of Amelia Baca is the exclamation point to Las Cruces’ need for a Civilian Police Oversight Board.

Who sez? So far, the NAACP, LULAC, psychiatrist Dr. Ernest Flores, and many others. Several have personally seen nonfatal incidents as appalling as the Baca shooting. Pattie Hartman told the City Council Monday these situations are “social justice” issues, adding, “I’ve warned as many as I could not to call 9-1-1. Amelia Baca was not an isolated incident.”

It’s hard to defend the officer who shot Ms. Baca, based on the video. Yeah, she’s holding knives – but down at her side, not in a threatening manner. She’s in a doorway. He knows she’s mentally troubled. Her daughter and granddaughter keep reminding him. He repeatedly hollers, in English, “Drop the [____] knives!” In his defense, (a) he doesn’t know if she is a threat to someone else inside (or has hurt someone), and (b) she’s closer to him than the wide-angled lapel video might suggest. But he put himself that close. She didn’t approach him.

Hollering ain’t how to deal with someone in a mental health crisis. He doesn’t ask her family members if anyone is inside.” He doesn’t try speaking reassuringly, or ascertain whether she understands English. He could do so, while watching her closely and holding his gun. He’s supposedly had many hours of training. There are a dozen better approaches he should have learned in the first hour.

If this were an isolated incident, . . . but it’s not. How many responsible, respected, knowledgeable citizens need to tell the City Council about seeing several such incidents? How many citizens must die?

Yeah, we have a contract with some agency elsewhere. Dr. Earl Nissen reviewed their annual report. Basically, they summarized several complaints and how the LCPD resolved those. They suggested that “deescalation training” be more than a flier. How many citizen complainants did they call up and ask questions of? None. A key city employee pointed out that “they can only audit what’s submitted to them.” LCPD controls that. Nissen, 90, is so concerned that he’s driven up to Albuquerque monthly to attend meetings of their civilian oversight board. Police officials answer questions directly, in public, and the board can request documents.

A local board can investigate immediately. By contacting complainants (or hearing them at meetings), it can hear local accounts directly, respond personally, and be seen by the public to do that, yet keep sensitive personnel information confidential. As Nissen heard one Albuquerque citizen say at a meeting, “At least we know now who to contact. We have a channel of communication with the police.”

I work with police officers. Many are fine individuals who show real concern for the public. Seems some aren’t. Or get overly excited under pressure. Overall, the record now demands action, and the most constructive action available is an oversight board that can help resolve complaints, improve training, facilitate communications, ensure bad apples are trained better or tossed, clear up misunderstandings, and help build trust between officers and citizens. Members should neither believe everything said by officers nor be biased against them. (Paying police more might help, too.)

In many cities, such boards have made great improvements. For a small fraction of what Las Cruces [we] will pay Sam Bregman and the Bacas.

We all must stop seeing mentally-troubled citizens as “other.” Amelia Baca was much more than her final moments.