When complaints are filed against an Albuquerque police officer, an independent agency will review the case. But how many of those complaints are valid, and how many are bogus?
The Civilian Police Oversight Agency, or CPOA, is an independent agency that looks into citizen complaints against Albuquerque Police officers to make sure they’re not crossing the line. They receive a lot of complaints.
As KRQE News 13 discovered on Special Assignment, often times those complaints are false.
When police are called, officers are often responding to a stressful or dangerous scene.
“I think that sometimes when people encounter the police, it’s in sort of a panic situation,” said Ed Harness, Executive Director of the CPOA.
We’ve seen things escalate. And when people or police go too far, it’s often captured on an APD body camera. “The videos are key,” Harness explained.
The CPOA reviews citizen complaints against officers, presents findings to the Police Oversight Board, and makes disciplinary recommendations to the chief.
The agency receives hundreds of complaints a year, a number that went up in 2018.
“I think that the trust level is going up in the community that we’re going to do a good job and we’re going to be fair and impartial,” explained Harness.
KRQE News 13 wanted to know how often complaints against officers are substantiated, but it turns out more often than not, the complaints are false.
“Certainly their perception of what happened is much different than what we’re looking at on the videos,” said Harness.
One example is a case from October 2017. APD arrested Eddie Aguilera for breaking into a fire station while firefighters were out on a call.
Aguilera asked to go to the hospital first, and that’s where he started cursing at staff.
“Eddie, watch your mouth; there’s kids in here,” the officer told him. The exchange was captured on police lapel video. “Well, get them out of here, dude, because it’s about to get f*** live!”
Aguilera tried to bait the officer in the hospital waiting room, telling him, “F*** me up, f*** it, f*** me up! Right here in front of all these people, dude.”
The officer tried to calm him down, but witnesses say Aguilera then charged the officer before he was taken to the ground.
Aguilera later filed a complaint, claiming the officer attacked him.
“We do get a fair number of complaints from people that are probably in some sort of a mental health crisis and so sometimes those complaints are difficult to work through,” Harness explained.
Investigating a complaint used to take much longer until last year, when the CPOA was granted immediate access to police videos.
Now if a complaint is unfounded, the investigator can usually tell right away, and close the case without launching a full 120-day investigation.
“If we can’t minimally substantiate what’s in the complaint, then we’re going to administratively close that,” said Harness.
For the first part of 2018, nearly 80 percent of complaints were administratively closed. That’s up from 26 percent the year before when video wasn’t readily available to show who was right or wrong.
In another case from April, an officer found passengers yelling and flipping each other off after a three-car pileup.
“I have a kid here, you don’t need to be like that!” An exchange between a female driver and another passenger was captured on APD lapel camera.
“I don’t care, lady! You should pay attention!” The male passenger shouted back at the woman.
“What did I tell you? Go over there now! I’m sick of hearing you!” The officer shouted at the male passenger.
Video shows a witness tell the officer that the male passenger was flipping off the other female driver and cursing at her right before the officer arrived on scene.
The male passenger later filed a complaint claiming the officer had a “chip on his shoulder,” and “lacks training.”
He wrote that he’s a retired cop, and claims the officer “became more agitated” with him after he shared that fact.
The lapel video tells a different story.
“By the way I’m a retired 34 just so you know,” the male passenger tells the officer.
Video shows the officer calmly listening to him explain the crash, and the passenger later apologizing for his actions.
“I hope you understand that’s not how I usually act,” the passenger eventually told the officer. He said he shouldn’t have yelled at the woman and cursed at her, but he was upset that she rear-ended his daughter’s vehicle.
In its finding letter, the CPOA told the complainant, “The officer didn’t appear antagonized or angry at you.” The issue was closed “due to no violations of APD’s Standard Operating Procedures.”
If there is a violation found, the CPOA can recommend discipline anywhere from a verbal reprimand to suspension. From there, it’s up to the police chief.
If someone disagrees with their case being closed, they can provide more information and the case can be reopened.
Still, the fact that this oversight agency is hearing more from the public, Harness says, is a good thing.
“It’s a matter of us bridging the gap between the community and APD and we’re one of those mechanisms to help build that trust,” Harness told KRQE News 13.