Bernalillo County Commissioners created a Sheriff’s Office Advisory and Review board last week.
Created by ordinance, the purpose of this board is to “improve public transparency and accountability with respect to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, by providing robust opportunities for community engagement, analysis and review of the Office’s policies, practices, procedures, and provide advice to the Board of Bernalillo County Commissioners, the Sheriff’s Office, and the public.”
Commissioner James Collie, who brought the ordinance up to vote, said there had been discussion for a commission oversight board for some time, but since the Sheriff is an elected official, he doesn’t have to answer to the commissioners.
“Mostly at that point, everybody shrugs their shoulders and walks away from it,” he said. “But it seemed to me that there are at least other options, and one of them is to do this advisory and review board which is to say, ‘We’re not going to tell you what to do, but we’ve got some advice.’ … [The board] has the ability to review any of the public policies that the Sheriff has and to make comment upon them, I guess they could also make comment if they find that the Sheriff doesn’t have a policy about something.”
Collie said there is another piece to the board. He said that over the past few years, there have been a number of incidents that got a large community response, but there was no direct outlet for citizens to make their voices known. With the advisory and review board, citizens now have a place to raise concerns, with each board meeting providing for public comment.
Collie said while there wasn’t a specific instance that sparked creation of a review board, certain events and findings over the past few months showed why it was needed.
“There was a series of articles [in the Albuquerque Journal] that I think were fairly important that were coming up about this time,” he said. “On July 4, there was a front-page article on the BCSO and it was about body cams. The substance of the article was about a report that the county had received by an outside consulting firm that was supposed to be on the staff. … Just over and over and over again, it pointed out that there were not Sheriff’s policies around certain critical issues. … You can’t have a Sheriff’s Department without public policies about critical matters. That was coming out, and interestingly enough, about the same time as we had begun to write the text for this ordinance. All of that played together.”
Collie said the board is not there to pick over specific incidents involving BCSO and decide whether the actions were right or wrong. Instead, it would be within its scope to look at general policies springing from specific incidents.
“Do they stand nationally with the best practices? What are the results of things like this, and should we advise the Sheriff to write a policy, review a policy, correct a policy?,” he said. “But it’s not so much to take an incident and say, ‘Was this handled correctly or not correctly?’”
He also said that there will likely be confusion on the board at first about what its job will be.
“We’re used to the police department’s citizen oversight board,” Collie said, “and its job is really to take formal complaints and investigate them, and then make decisions about correct behavior. … This group will not receive formal complaints. … This group really, simply, reviews policies, procedures, and processes and gives advice.”
Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty, who seconded the motion to vote, said she had a few reasons to support this ordinance. “I really feel like the commissioners,” she said, “that I get a lot of emails and communication about the Sheriff’s office and I wanted to make sure that the Sheriff’s office was getting that feedback, and so I thought that would be a good mechanism to have continuous dialogue with the public and with the Sheriff’s office.”
She also said that she thinks community standards change, and the way people see the role of law enforcement has also changed.
“One of the things that I keep seeing as a licensed mental health professional myself, and also as somebody whose from a law enforcement family, I think that there are places where our law enforcement officers are put into positions that would be better handled by mental health professionals,” Pyskoty said. “I want to hear the ideas that our community has about this.”
Pyskoty said that as a commissioner, she hears a lot of what’s going on in the county from the emails and phone calls she receives. She said she hopes this board will give people the opportunity to present feedback directly to the Sheriff’s office, from people “who are living in different places, different situations across the entire county.”
Spokesperson Joseph Montiel said the ordinance has yet to be reviewed by the Sheriff’s legal representative.
The ordinance passed on a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Lonnie Talbert voting against the ordinance.