Complacent politicians abet law and disorder | Local Columns
George Floyd’s terrible death at the knee of a police officer made clear what too often is forgotten.
Politicians will ignore their police departments until a scandal or tragedy obliterates the wide blue line separating the station house from the city hall.
It’s that way in Santa Fe. It’s also what went wrong in Minneapolis.
Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who planted a knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, was part of an undisciplined, arrogant department.
Chauvin abused Floyd in the light of day as civilian onlookers recorded the officer’s every move with their cameras.
Eyewitnesses would have alarmed a cop who feared retribution for harming a handcuffed suspect. Chauvin wasn’t moved, not by being caught on camera and not by the pleas of bystanders worried that Floyd would be maimed or killed.
The presence of three fellow police officers didn’t concern Chauvin, either. He knew they were too weak or too jaded to intervene. Perhaps they would even cover for him if one of the nosy civilians complained.
Only after Floyd died did City Hall realize how far gone its police department was.
A state prosecutor has charged Chauvin with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, 38, is busy condemning Chauvin while his city burns. The mayor also claims most of his cops are good, even though four bad ones have him running riot control.
Frey was a Minneapolis councilman for four years before being elected mayor in 2017. He should have known a good deal about his police department. Until last week, he had no idea what it was capable of.
In Santa Fe, the police department and Mayor Alan Webber are submerged in a scandal of their own. This one also is a case of a politician not paying close attention to his biggest, most expensive agency.
The evidence room at the Santa Fe Police Department has been a sieve. Evidence has disappeared in two high-profile cases — a murder and the rape of a child.
Still unknown is how many other criminal cases have been ruined or compromised by the failure of Webber’s administration to make sure evidence was collected and preserved.
Yet, until the latest scandal involving the evidence room became public this month, Webber was busying himself with political spin and growing the city bureaucracy.
In April, during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Webber highlighted the creation of the city Quality of Life Committee.
“Traditionally, in most cities, city government is about taking care of things — roads, streets, bridges, our water system, our rec center,” Webber said. “But city government is about the people of Santa Fe first and foremost. This committee will help fill in the gaps, expand our ability to collaborate and address some of the root issues at the heart of our most difficult and persistent issues.”
Lost in all that jargon was the physical evidence in the rape of a little girl.
Regardless of what Webber claims in press handouts, city government doesn’t need another committee to take care of what matters most.
Somehow, though, ordinary people also believe more government is the answer.
Since the mess with the evidence room and Floyd’s tragic death in Minneapolis, many readers have told me they want to create a citizen board to review police conduct.
My response doesn’t please them.
Another layer of bureaucracy — a toothless one, no less — would only make the police department less accountable.
Santa Fe already has a group that oversees the police department. It’s called the City Council.
The eight councilors, along with the mayor, control the budget for all city operations.
Police officers have to deal with elected officials, whether the issue is contract negotiations or lost evidence.
The police union wouldn’t have to acknowledge a separate citizen committee devoid of any real power.
Other cities have review boards to hear allegations of police misconduct. What typically happens is the police union advises its officers not to cooperate.
Still, the presence of these weak committees allows city councils, mayors and prosecutors to pass the buck.
Webber is already ducking for cover in regard to the evidence room. He’s blamed a now-retired detective for the latest scandal.
The former detective says he collected and turned in the evidence in the child rape. By his account, those responsible for the evidence room lost it.
Creating another committee might get Webber a headline or two, but it won’t make the police department better or keep the city safer.
There’s already a system in place for that. All that’s necessary is for the mayor and city councilors to do their job.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at [email protected] or 505-986-3080.
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