A Crack in the Shield

As police complaints increase, new task force will discuss changes, transparency for SFPD 

The scanned copy of a formal complaint form tells a disturbing story—that former Santa Fe Police Department Officer Mike Chavez intimidated and harassed Chris Lopez on multiple occasions because of an issue in their personal lives.

Lopez says he went to the police department several times to complain and eventually completed the form in a frustrated, two-page scrawl. He also requested body camera video from the incidents.

He never heard back from the department or got any reassurance the Internal Affairs Unit took his allegations seriously.

SFPD says Chavez resigned from the department in December 2019, but did not provide a reason.

Since the alleged misconduct by Chavez, which took place in 2017 and 2018, Lopez records every interaction with law enforcement, despite his belief that most complaints against police officers go nowhere.

"They're a big gang and they all stick together and if you complain on one: 'Don't worry, I have your back,'" Lopez tells SFR of the police department. "Unless [an officer] gets caught on camera or something like that, that's the only way they'll actually pursue something."

The dozens of complaints against officers submitted each year hit a high in 2019, according to an annual aggregate report SFPD provided to news organizations. People spell out a variety of alleged misconduct by cops in their complaints: a detailed allegation of sexual assault, battery, false arrest, a resident's broken arm and a botched domestic violence investigation.

Most report rude and unprofessional behavior or calls for service that left people waiting. (The most common complaint is that an officer behaved unprofessionally.)

SFR examined nearly 100 complaints received after an Inspection of Public Records Act request to the city. The department says operational complaints have risen 32% from 2018 to 2019, and taxpayers have spent nearly $2 million in two years to pay settlements from officer misconduct.

Lopez never learned what became of his complaint, which is common among those who spoke with SFR—and it matches the newspaper's own experience. That's because of Santa Fe's longstanding, stubborn secrecy policy, which has led to questions about whether the department's accountability systems function or even exist. The city refuses to disclose even the most basic information about officer discipline, a practice that lies at the heart of an ongoing lawsuit SFR filed seeking change.

After decades of recalcitrance, a hint of progress is swirling in Santa Fe months after the fresh sparks of a national movement against police violence with the establishment of the city's Health and Safety Task Force. No matter what measures the task force—two city councilors and nine residents—decides to take during the next six months, there's sure to be some pushback, as confirmed by Police Chief Andrew Padilla's interviews with SFR.

But here's what's possibly on the table: policy reviews, increased transparency, shifting some duties away from police to professionals better equipped to handle them and even citizen oversight.

That last item, according to experts who spoke with SFR, could lead to real change or create yet another layer of deflection, depending on how it's set up and rolled out. Councilor Chris Rivera already voiced support for potentially closing the police meetings to the public, in direct contradiction to best practices recommended by experts.

Several task force members, however, say they would like to see more transparency and accountability within the police department, even though the group has not officially met yet.

Lopez, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, tells SFR he thinks a police oversight board would be helpful to keep misbehaving cops in check amid a police culture that shields law enforcement from consequences.

"[The police officers] stick with each other. They can do whatever they want," Lopez says. "That's how it is everywhere, I guess…especially here in Santa Fe."

Complaints Enter Black Hole 

It's not unusual that Lopez doesn't know what happened after he complained against Chavez. Did the department punish the officer in some way? What evidence did it investigate? Once a complaint is filed, it rests solely in the hands of SFPD's Internal Affairs Unit and handled in a black hole of secrecy.

The unit is staffed by two lieutenants who report directly to the chief of police. Their job is to investigate and supervise the entire process, as well as make sure the records are maintained. Each complaint becomes either an official internal affairs investigation or an operational complaint. Internal investigations look at excessive use of force and discrimination. Operational complaints look at issues like rudeness.

If a complaint is sustained, an officer could be fired, suspended, demoted or receive verbal counseling. According to the police department's policies and procedures, both the complainant and the officer should receive, in writing, the conclusion of fact and the disposition of allegation.

But several Santa Feans who spoke to SFR say they never heard anything back from the department after filing a complaint, including Lopez, who says he went to the department in person to speak to officer Chavez's commander and was told Chavez would be talked to—and that's the last Lopez heard.

"They must've just thrown it under the carpet," he says.

Padilla tells SFR the department always contacts complainants but that if the two parties don't get "connected," constituents can get an update from SFPD.

If a submitted complaint is particularly egregious and the officer may have committed a crime, SFPD hands it off to the New Mexico State Police or the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office for a criminal investigation.

Padilla says the way complaints are investigated is "fair," including the department's "Blue Team" system, which he says is akin to an early warning system that alerts lieutenants to the number of complaints an officer has received about their conduct.

"It's a fair process as it currently stands right now and these are topics that are dealt with that are addressed under the Officers' Bill of Rights and in the police officer association's contract, it's covered in there what the rules and the timelines are going to be," Padilla says. "We take these complaints seriously and all of them are investigated. We don't just sweep these under the rug."

A Request for Trust

Padilla is asking residents to trust him if they want to assess his claim about fairness in investigations. That's because the City of Santa Fe won't open the files. Instead, the city has interpreted the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) to say that police officers' disciplinary records and investigations into misconduct are not subject to release.

It is a sharp contrast with cities in much more conservative states, like Athens, Georgia, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which recently set up transparent police oversight boards. And 60 miles down the road in Albuquerque, a city infamous for police problems and secrecy, officials for years have agreed to release cops' disciplinary records to the public on request.

In Santa Fe, the city will provide citizen complaints—in many cases with large swaths blacked out—but won't say anything about how they turned out. And even poring over those documents raises as many questions as it answers.

After analyzing complaints submitted for 2018 and 2019, SFR found that the aggregate report the police department provided to news organizations and the actual number of complaints SFR received do not match. Of the 58 misconduct complaints against officers counted in the department's report for 2019, 11 complaints are missing; and of the 44 complaints lodged in 2018, 10 are missing.

Assistant City Attorney Mike Prinz says he doesn't have an answer as to why those complaints were not included in SFR's IPRA request.

Since July, SFR has sought the 2020 complaints, but the city has yet to provide them.

Another aspect the public can see, which offers a limited look into how much alleged misbehavior has cost the city, are the settlements paid to people who filed claims against officers or the department. Those figures totaled $561,078 so far in 2020 and $996,083 in 2019. The claims are many peoples' worst nightmares: false charges, false imprisonment, violation of civil rights and accusations that the department did not fully investigate a missing person's report, leading to the person's death, among other accusations.

Names, settlement amounts and the policy violations are all that constituents can see—for now.

Oversight Pros and Cons

The new Health and Safety Task Force directs two city councilors, Chris Rivera and Renee Villarreal, and nine diverse Santa Fe residents, to consider, in part, the police department's policies and procedures. This includes the use-of-force policy, the type of military-style equipment the department accepts from the federal government and whether other professionals, like social workers, should handle calls related to people with mental illnesses, according to Rivera.

Among unanswered questions is whether the group will set up a police oversight board. In Albuquerque, a police oversight board and rules allowing the city to release police disciplinary records have been established for years.

"I think that's something that the Health and Safety Task Force will look into a little bit and that may be one of the recommendations that comes out of it," Rivera tells SFR. "I think that there are probably policy changes that we can make ourselves and we may look a little bit harder during these next six months and make recommendations going forward as to how we handle those."

To tackle police reform, a topic the city and the nation have been grappling with for decades, in six months is a tall order. If more time is needed to discuss the police and other issues, the council may grant an extension.

Raashan Ahmad, a local artist and new task force member, decided to apply for the appointment as a way to push forward justice for marginalized people. And he has a much stronger position on the transparency of the police department than most in city government.

"There's certain police officers that people have filed complaints against, especially multiple times. We as the public, as the city, should be able to see who these people are," Ahmad tells SFR. "Don't throw a rock and hide your hands. Let's just be open about what's happening, like what's really going on. These are public servants…Why should this be hidden away for only certain people to see if these people are working for the city?"

Albuquerque had the same question, yet its oversight board doesn't get answers either.

Chelsea Van Deventer, a lawyer and two-year member of the Police Oversight Board in Albuquerque, resigned in the fall of 2019, disillusioned by the system the city put into place.

Albuquerque's board reviews APD's complaints and can investigate further if it's deemed necessary. The board also reviews police shooting cases and serious use-of-force incidents and can change and improve policies within the police department, similar to what Santa Fe's task force might work on.

But Van Deventer says she thinks the oversight board is "worse than being pointless" because the board is used by politicians as an excuse to ignore activists and citizens' requests for deeper reforms. She describes the oversight board as "toothless" and a "scapegoat" for more meaningful progress on policing.

"Cases are not being investigated. They're being closed without investigation," Van Deventer tells SFR. "When we do have thorough investigations, we find that all of the work has been for naught …[APD] administratively closed 90% of their civilian investigations. They didn't review any officer-involved shootings or use-of-force cases almost the entire time I was on the board."

Even with their obvious shortcomings, Liana Perez, operations director for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, believes strongly in the importance of a police oversight entity.

NACOLE provides resources, training and education to communities that are setting up oversight boards and even to some cities that have had one for decades. Perez says George Floyd's death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and the following nationwide protests spiked requests from communities to help them set up oversight.

The organization advocates for jurisdictions to adopt one of four different models with varying degrees of authority and investigative powers. Regardless of the system a municipality chooses, she says it's important that communities take their time and bring in diverse community stakeholders.

"We always caution that it shouldn't be something that's done in a vacuum. It shouldn't be something that's done overnight," Perez tells SFR. "The ones that are the most effective are the ones that are taking their time, and when I say taking their time, I don't mean years. But taking the time to get the community stakeholders involved and have those conversations with the community to ensure that you're on the right track."

In that sense, Santa Fe seems to be heading in the right direction by NACOLE's standards in setting up a task force that might create a police oversight board.

However, there are places it might fall short.

Perez recommends that SFPD be a stakeholder in the conversations to combat the common resistance law enforcement agencies put up against outsiders examining their practices.

She also offers a strong "no" to Rivera's recent push for some task force meetings to be closed to the public when the members discuss police policy and procedures.

"The best thing is to be transparent," Perez tells SFR. Other cities that have task forces and oversight boards have had completely transparent meetings on police matters.

A Future Agreement

For now, the police department in Santa Fe seems hesitant to have more oversight, but Chief Padilla says he would be open to the release of minimal details regarding alleged officer misconduct.

Padilla remains dead set that his department and the union that represents officers aren't going for the level of transparency that exists in other cities.

"These types of complaints, internal complaints, external complaints, investigations themselves, they're open for interpretation…we're not going to release that information just to the open public," says Padilla.

What the department and the local police union might agree upon, however, is the release of the officer's name, the type of violation that may have occurred, and whether or not the result of the investigation was found to be sustained, not sustained, unfounded or exonerated, he says. The disciplinary action an officer faces from a violation would still not be publicly released under such a plan.

SFR was unable to discern whether Santa Fe's police union has a position on the topic because its president was unresponsive to a request for an interview. The silence matches a slow shift over time with the union, which in the past acted as a more public, outspoken voice for officers—as opposed to letting the administration speak for the rank and file.

Padilla's suggestion amounts to more than Mayor Alan Webber's administration and its predecessors have been willing to do, and the chief's lean toward a short step into the sunlight sets up a potential tension point with City Hall.

A limited behind-the-scenes view at the police department might not be enough for some task force members. Three of them told SFR they would likely want to see more transparency around the investigations and disciplinary actions taken against officers.

Naja Druva, who works as a behavioral health therapist at Las Cumbres Community Services and a member of the new task force, says the only reason citizens can't see more of the process in the police department is because there is an incentive to shield dangerous police officers.

She also compares the secrecy of the police department's policies to the rigorous vetting of her work as a therapist.

"If I am seen to do something that harms one of my clients…that person has the ability to make a complaint to my board, which issues my ability to continue to be a therapist," Druva says. "If they determine I was negligent or dangerous, they prevent my ability to be a therapist ever after…I can't be a therapist anymore because a panel of my peers said I am too dangerous. So why is there not a similar system for policing for people who are walking in the community armed?"

The task force will have a chance to ask themselves and the city's leaders this question in the coming months. But the outcome ultimately depends on the recommendations the task force makes and whether the City Council and administration will consider cracking open the longstanding secrecy surrounding Santa Fe law enforcement.

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