Citizens group calls for police oversight board


There are more than 200 citizen police oversight boards in the United States and there should be one for the Las Cruces Department (LCPD), three local citizens told the Las Cruces City Council at its May 22 work session.

“What we’re doing is a spectacular failure, whether you count by dead people … or by huge settlements where the city didn’t even like it’s position enough to even think about going to trial,” Peter Goodman said.

A proposed city ordinance recommends a hybrid model for LCPD oversight that would include OIR, the company contracted by the city to conduct twice-annual audits of LCPD, and a citizen review board “to ensure proper investigations are made of police misconduct,” Earl Nissen said. That “would give the city council … more accountability and transparency of the police department,” he said.

“The bottom line, we cannot allow the excessive use of force by LCPD to continue on our watch,” said Bobbie Green, president of the Doña Ana County NAACP and a member of the Las Cruces Police Academy Board.

Green said she has asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct an investigation of the police department.

“We have two options,” Green said. “We can tell DOJ that we have made progress and we are collectively working toward a solution ourselves together or we can wait for DOJ to recommend a solution.”

“There are many ways we can achieve the goals we all want, which is real community safety,” Councilor Johana Bencomo said. “I at least want a commitment that this conversation will continue. The wider conversation around use of force and implementing high standards I think is necessary.”

“Not that it would in any way impede my support of having this oversight board established … but it would be great to see if there is any data out there on how these changes and this oversight board has effected and what the outcomes have been,” Councilor Yvonne Flores said.

“What is the empirical data available that demonstrate these boards are effective for the problems that we’re looking to solve?” asked Councilor Becki Graham. “There was no real, hard data that showed that cities that implement these kinds of boards show a decrease – I’m not saying that it’s not true, I’m saying that I was not able to find it.”

“What it’s asking for in this ordinance is to look at HR personnel files. That’s something we as councilors don’t even have access to,” Councilor Tessa Abeyta said. “When oversight boards don’t have access to those items – there’s probably a legal reason why they don’t – then it makes them less effective, which therefore leads me to think there are other tools and mechanisms in place that help with accountability and transparency that go beyond this type of board.”

“I think that’s a fair question,” Goodman said. “I think it’s a question that falls into the ‘How do we do this,” not ‘This is a deal breaker’ category.”

Abeyta also questioned an oversight board’s ability to make decisions “before an investigation is closed out on the personnel side (and) in the legal system,” give advice regarding the hiring and firing of city personnel and provide public education.

Councilor Becky Corran requested that the council conduct a work session on existing police “mechanisms of accountability,” including disciplinary action and the use of force. She also said the city should revise its contract with OIR to include a random sampling of use of force incidents and all deadly use of force.

Mayor Ken Miyagishima questioned granting an oversight board the authority to recommend discipline, which he said is something even the city council cannot do.

“Who do you expect to pay for the liability” if an oversight board member is sued? the mayor asked. The city could not provide liability coverage to board members, he said.

 The next police academy graduation will include bonuses for officers who have psychology or sociology backgrounds, the mayor said, and the city launched Project L.I.G.H.T. in March to include social workers when it responds to 911 mental health emergencies.

“You don’t think that has shown what the city is trying to do?” the mayor said. “It’s not we’re just sitting here not doing anything.”

“This is a topic that concerns us very highly,” said LCPD Detective Kenneth Davis, president of the LCPD union.

Police oversight is “one piece of the puzzle around policing in Las Cruces,” said Daniel Williams, policing policy advocate for the ACLU of New Mexico. The city should also look at adopting a higher standard for use of force than mandated by federal law, he said. Increased data and transparency would also be beneficial, Williams said, along with expanding “non-police responses.”

“I am a believer in community involvement in police oversight,” Loretta King said during public input. “Allow the community to speak and to be heard.”