Commentary: Start with accountability when discussing police reform
Police reform is a topic of many layers. Reform should begin by asking questions: What do we want from our officers? Do we want police? If we do, how can we do a better job of balancing public wants with officer safety? No matter the question, meaningful reform starts with better accountability.
A reasonable person seeking police reform should expect four basic standards from a department: First, they should expect hiring methods that screen out potential problem officers. Second, they should expect policies based on national best practices. Third, they should expect training that reflects those policies. And fourth, they should expect departments to hold officers accountable when they don’t follow policy and training. Accountability seems easy, yet it is more complicated than one would think.
Accountability is the subject of numerous trainings and articles, and often the results fall well short of the goal. Police reformers bring up accountability but rarely present a path to accomplish it. Instead, the public and departments are presented a buffet of new legislation proclaiming to help reform police without ever addressing how accountability occurs. Perhaps they don't know, and that is the problem with reform efforts that don't involve law enforcement leadership. Too often, "reformers" have an elementary idea of how police agencies work or how accountability happens. There were no serious proposals made during the 2020 regular or special legislative session making accountability easier.
Everyone involved in policing benefits from a professional police department: the public, the department and the overwhelming number of good officers doing the job daily. This step-by-step process would assist in creating a fair and professional means for accountability.
First, every department should have a person(s) designated as its internal affairs investigator. Everyone should know about this process at all times, especially the public. Internal affairs investigators should be tasked with receiving complaints from employees and the public. Second, the investigator(s) must complete a 40-hour training course on conducting internal affairs investigations. Currently, there is no such requirement. Not only the lead investigator but every new supervisor should have this training. The Farmington Police Department rotates new sergeants through IA, allowing them to conduct investigations, read other investigations and gain an appreciation about the importance of the process.
Third, address the broken system of decertifying officers found to have committed serious misconduct. The current system is hopelessly behind in handling decertification requests. An estimated 100 to 200 New Mexico officer decertification requests have yet to be addressed. The exact number is unknown, which is another issue. Officers were found to have committed serious misconduct by their departments, the department sent the proper paperwork for consideration of decertification and it became mired in a process that appears anything but transparent. In the meantime, officers in question retain their certification.
We should be looking at what types of misconduct are waiting on action, how many, the process and why the delays. Instead of new laws with new requirements, how about we fix the system we currently have to ensure bad officers aren't allowed to be officers anymore?
Finally, the recent union legislation that went into effect should be reexamined as it pertains to law enforcement. Binding arbitration has been heavily reported on in other states. The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently wrote an article stating roughly 50% of officers fired who went to arbitration won their jobs back. A June editorial in the Washington Post from retired Chief Daniel Oates outlined the impact binding arbitration had on accountability during his three stints as chief in three different states.
Employees already can sue in the courts to win their jobs back – due process exists. However, arbitration makes it more difficult for departments to prevail. Ultimately, if we are going to call for greater accountability, our political leadership needs to stop pandering for votes. When departments are trying to hold officers accountable, it's frustrating to watch the people calling for reform make the process more difficult.
This simple roadmap will allow greater professionalism in New Mexico policing. Mandate the creation and training of internal affairs units, make the decertification process efficient and transparent and give departments the tools to enforce accountability. This will advance New Mexico law enforcement more than any new bill being discussed.
Steve Hebbe is the chief of the Farmington Police Department.