A federal investigation into the DWI unit of the Albuquerque Police Department and an Albuquerque law firm has resulted in the mayor, the police chief and the district attorney all pointing fingers – away from themselves.
If you don't follow Albuquerque news, here's the gist: Albuquerque lawyer Thomas Clear (also chair of the State Public Defender Commission until the FBI raided his office) is alleged to have colluded with four APD officers and one lieutenant over DWI defendants. The scam worked like this: the cops in question would arrest a DWI offender, refer them to Clear for legal representation and then make a procedural error during the legal proceedings, most commonly missing a court date, leading to the dismissal of the charges.
The mayor is mad at the City Council for asking reasonable questions about the investigation. The police chief is mad at the DA for not telling him when officers were no shows. The DA is mad at the police chief for not making sure officers show up to hearings. And all of this is being aired via press release or press conference.
(Crisis communication pro tip #1: when there is an active federal investigation, shut up. And then tell the press, "There is an active investigation. It would not be appropriate to comment while the investigation is ongoing." Because it isn't. For so many reasons.)
When the news of the FBI raid broke last month, the first thing that crossed my mind was, "I bet the cops got paid to just not show up in court." Alas, I am not a brilliant investigative mind. I am instead the spouse of a defense attorney with 30 years of courtroom experience. When we moved back to New Mexico from the DC metro area in 2005, he was struck by how common it was for police officers to just not show up for hearings. There seemed to be no consequences.
Sort of like when the cubicle-weary protagonist of the film Office Space simply decides to handle his workplace misery with a very simple plan: "I'm just going to stop going." No one, including his boss and the optimization consultants, seems to know how to react. APD doesn't seem to know how, either.
APD Chief Harold Medina has been unable to provide much detail about the situation in press conferences held since the FBI raid. He has been willing to go on the record and blame the DA's office, though, for failing to notify APD when an officer misses a hearing.
(Crisis communication pro tip #2: if you are going to say you don't know if the officers under investigation were ever disciplined for missing court dates, maybe don't have the press conference. See pro tip #1. It is always okay to not discuss an ongoing investigation and refer the press to the FBI.)
Sam Bregman, the DA, should have a heightened awareness of this issue, having spent most of his previous career as a highly successful and high-profile criminal defense attorney. It appears the DA's office stopped notifying APD when officers missed court dates about four months before Bregman took office. Bregman's team has recently started the notifications again and has started a tracking system.
If you are reading this column in the southern part of the state, or in a small town, why should you care if APD has a problem with crooked cops? Because APD, after the State Police, is the biggest and best paying police force in the state. Your local police chiefs are fighting to keep their officers every day because APD pays better and always will.
Law enforcement in smaller jurisdictions are truly volunteers, working long hours and fewer days off for less pay, dealing with many of the same problems as the big cities: fentanyl, domestic violence, human trafficking. But they get to know the community better. And they, for the most part, are more honest.
It's a lot harder to pull off a scam like this when there are a dozen or fewer officers in your police department and fewer than six law firms in town. Bigger departments also bring bigger problems.
New Mexicans are tired of public corruption. But I hope we haven't become used to it. It would help matters immensely if the elected officials directly responsible for managing the police and adjudicating justice would shut up, let the FBI do its work, and if warranted, hold those responsible accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appeared regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run one head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.