Saturday, May 5, 2007

New IRO will take charge in June: William Deaton says job is about `finding facts'

By Maggie Shepard, Albuquerque Tribune

One Albuquerque police officer admits but defends punching a handcuffed Downtown reveler in the mouth, busting her lip and breaking her tooth.

Dueling polygraph results support both a citizen who says an officer maced a homeless man for no reason and the officer who said he never maced anyone.

And the family of a handicapped boy says a police officer lied in paperwork to justify harassing them in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The three cases pending before the Police Oversight Commission illustrate some of the difficult questions facing newly selected Independent Review Officer William Deaton as he prepares to take his post.

Deaton, set to become chief investigator into police misconduct complaints, has yet to be confirmed by the City Council.

Upon confirmation, he plans to start June 1.

He said he might not make the commission's Thursday meeting, where the cases will be discussed, but they likely will still require attention when he takes control of the office in June.

In addition to overseeing investigations into such cases, Deaton, an active 77-year-old, may also have to battle concerns that he is too closely tied to the police union.

The union did not support Deaton's predecessor, Jay Rowland, whom members felt was too tough on officers and overstepped his bounds by suggesting policy changes.

Rowland was informed in December that Mayor Martin Chavez would not renew his contract.

But with support from the citizen Police Oversight Commission and Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz, Rowland put his name in for the job anyway.

The job was advertised for only one week, and only locally - not at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, as Rowland suggested it should.

Among a handful of applications, Rowland, Deaton and Bruce Thompson rose to the top.

However, Rowland resigned his post last week and withdrew his name from the applicant pool, saying he wants to move to New York and focus on his family.

Thompson, an attorney and land-use policy analyst for the city, also withdrew his name in April.

Deaton, a long-time federal magistrate judge with a dynamic military history, said he put his name in the running after a police union attorney approached him about the job.

Despite the union's solicitation, Deaton said his investigations and rulings won't be biased toward the police officers.

"I can't say I don't have any biases. If I didn't, I'd be dead," he said Wednesday, speaking by cordless telephone from his roof, where he was doing maintenance.

"It's about finding facts. That is what I did at the state bench and the federal job, so I have the fact-finding-type experience."

Aware of the union's involvement in Deaton's application, commission Chairman Steve Smothermon said he is willing to give Deaton the benefit of the doubt, but said the commission will be watching for bias.

"We're going to take a more involved role in this, and the IRO works for us; we don't work for him," Smothermon said. "If we don't like the findings, we'll do what we'll need to do."

Here's how the process works:

• The IRO leads a team of investigators that digs into citizen complaints of police misconduct. The IRO judges whether investigators turned up enough evidence to prove or disprove an officer misbehaved. If there isn't enough evidence to prove it either way, the complaint is put into limbo - not sustained, but not proven false.

• While the team works on the case, police investigators do the same.

• Results of both investigations are brought to the Police Oversight Commission.

• Commissioners, chosen by city councilors and then appointed by the mayor, scrutinize the investigations.

• If the two teams disagree on what the evidence proves or a citizen pursues a complaint when the teams say it can't be proved - and both happen a few times a month - the commission must rule on who's right.

• Unsatisfied citizens have two chances to appeal their cases, first to the commission, then to the city's chief administrative officer.

In the complaint about the homeless man, investigators and commissioners sided with Scott Cameron, the citizen who witnessed the incident. Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz wants to appeal the decision, though the policy only allows citizens to do so.

The Downtown reveler, a 22-year-old woman, complained that APD Officer Debbie Heshley punched her in the mouth while she was handcuffed.

Though Rowland ruled in favor of the woman, the commission initially sided with the chief that there wasn't enough evidence to prove the assault occurred. The woman appealed the commission ruling and was allowed to give a statement in person. She was so persuasive that the commission, for the first time ever, changed its mind entirely and ruled in her favor.

The case is pending until Schultz, too, changes his mind and decides to discipline the officer. If he doesn't, the woman can appeal.

The Wal-Mart case is also waiting on administrative steps. It will be heard by the commission Thursday.

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