Commentary: Why can't local law-enforcement agencies work more closely together?
The Sun-News recently reported that Detective Irma Palos has sued the City. She's the case agent who investigated Tai Chan, accused of murdering a fellow Santa Fe sheriff's deputy. (His first trial ended in a hung jury last May.) Palos alleges male police retaliated against her for helping bring to justice Detective Michael Garcia, the sex-crimes investigator jailed for sex crimes, and for telling a lawyer about sexual banter male cops allegedly subjected women to. The alleged retaliation includes denying her resources necessary to investigate the murder case.
Those events raise many questions, but one is: why didn't someone tell District Attorney Mark D'Antonio, who's prosecuting Chan, that his star witness was saying her investigation was compromised?
Tuesday D'Antonio wrote LCPD Chief Jaime Montoya that neither LCPD nor Palos “informed the D.A.'s office of the detective's legal action.” He called that “deplorable and devoid of any rational thinking.” He added that Palos's lawsuit suggests “possible police corruption, obstruction of justice, and the mishandling of a major case involving the alleged cold-blooded assassination of a police officer.” D'Antonio says the Sun-News story March 28 was his first notice of Palos's allegations. (A confidential source says the D.A.'s Office learned of the problem earlier in March.)
If you're Palos, another detective working on the Chan case, or the police chief or city attorney, how in the *#*# does it not occur to you that, gee, maybe you might want to tell the D.A. there's this ugly stuff out there the defense lawyers might try to use against him?
I asked. No answer. Montoya said, “I'm not going to get into that,” he said, adding that he'd just received the DA's letter and would be discussing it with the DA and with his detectives.
You might ask if this was a confidential personnel matter; but the October filing made it public. You might point out that Palos's allegations are merely allegations. Why bother the D.A.? But these allegations, whether valid or not, could seriously harm the case. They undermine police credibility. Used well in cross-examination, they hurt Palos as a witness. “Didn't you testify under oath that you did a great investigation?” “Haven't you now alleged under oath that your investigation was compromised?” “How can the jury trust you?” Indeed, Chan's lawyers are asking the court to let them use the material.
I also asked Montoya about the alleged retaliation. He said little, citing the lawsuit; but the City has denied Palos's charges and is fighting the lawsuit. Montoya said, “Cultural issues and sexism are something we address every day, not only in our training but in managing and mentoring employees. A hostile work environment is completely contradictory to our values as a department.” Garcia's conduct occurred before Montoya became chief.
We shouldn't prejudge Palos's lawsuit. We should hear the evidence. D'Antonio notes in his letter that without further information he neither credits nor discredits Palos's allegations.
But I see no reasonable explanation for not informing the prosecutor. Among other problems, if the alleged obstruction kept exculpatory information (even minor facts) from being given to defense attorneys, that alone could jeopardize the case.
Further, obstruction of justice is a crime! Whether I hide stolen silverware from the cops or the police are screwing around because they don't like a detective, it's potentially criminal conduct. Who's investigating that? If no one has, the D.A. will. But October 2014, or even October 2016, would have been a better time to investigate possible malfeasance than April 2016. Chan's retrial is set for May 8.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 9 April 2016, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website; and KRWG Radio will run a recorded and shortened version twice on Wednesday.]
[One thing I lacked space to add was that this occurred in a context of inadequate communications and cooperation between or among law-enforcement agencies here. For one thing, last I heard the Doña Ana Sheriff's Office still hadn't agreed to cross-commissioning, although LCPD and the State Police have asked for it and I think the D.A. favors it. In addition, prosecutors would like to be informed more quickly and fully when a murder occurs, and even visit the scene. Further, some DASO deputies and LCPD detectives reportedly feel their job is over when they've delivered the case to the DA -- and aren't easily found for follow-up investigation and interviews.
One issue is the same one we all saw fairly often on "Law and Order": cops and lawyers are seeking the same result, but with different roles and different rules. Both want the bad guys put away; and, at least theoretically, both want the not guilty not jailed; but whereas cops have to locate and arrest the subject, the lawyers have to complete a very complex obstacle course called a trial. Trials have complicated and sometimes arcane rules of evidence, the prejudices and sympathies of judges and jurors, the unpredictability of jurors, and detailed procedural rules designed to keep the playing field somewhat fair.
The cop, at one extreme, gets the bad guy in jail and goes out for a drink, satisfied. Law says s/he's supposed to help with the prosecution, but some cops think that's the lawyers' job. What the hell did they go to law school for, and there are too many additional bad guys out there to waste time talking to additional witnesses or going back to verify some loony idea an assistant prosecutor dreams up. And some of them loathe and evade the laws about searches, confessions, and what-not. Plenty of popular movies establish that most of us would be tempted to do the same as the cops.
But the lawyer knows . S/he has very clever and well-educated people called defense lawyers waiting to pounce on any error, to thwart the prosecution; and as we all know, that prosecution has to convince a dozen strangers it's righteous, beyond a shadow of a doubt.]
D'Antonio's letter (sent Tuesday) was blistering. After advocating "unity and mutual respect between law enforcement entities" as essential elements in protecting the public," he noted a "strained relationship between our two offices" which "leads to unproductive and ineffective law enforcement. This prevailing attitude has culminated in the failure of LCPD to notify my office and I of crucial information in the prosecution involving a murdered police officer."
The current police culture of shifting the blame for poorly-investigated cases, compounded by disgruntled police officers, has led to inadequate investigation and sloppy police work. It must come to an end.
. . .
The recent situation involving the Tai Chan Murder case, in which you intentionally refused to share critical information in a pending and active prosecution with my office, is outrageous and an affront to justice in our community. We have attempted to work closely with the case agent, Detective Palos, and have done everything in our power to present the best case possible. The fact that neither Detective Palos, nor any representative from LCPD, informed the DA's office of the detective's legal action, filed in October 2015, is deplorable and devoid of any rational thinking. The facts of the suit suggest possible police corruption, obstruction of justice, and the mishandling of a major case involving the alleged cold-blooded assassination of a police officer. I will not credit or discredit Detective Palos' allegations without more information. I need to immediately review the results of a thorough internal investigation. Although I was never informed that such an investigation took place, I must assume that such an inquiry was conducted since the allegations were filed in October of last year. What makes matters worse is, as of today's date, April 4, 2016 m at 11:00 a.m., despite the news coverage, I have not been notified of the incident by your or by any official. Please explain that to the public.
No matter what the evidence reveals, the facts are important to the prosecution of the Chan case. . . . Your department's failure to disclose any information in this matter in a timely manner has made our prosecution more difficult. In addition, you have provided defense counsel alternative methods to attack the State's evidence.
. . . [T]he defense team representing Mr. Chan has filed newly-conceived motions attacking the evidence and testimony in the upcoming trial. Since, to date, you have yet to notify me of any investigation regarding the allegation of misconduct and the denial of investigative resources, I am unequipped to properly and intelligently respond to any defense motions filed based on Detective Palos' allegations. If I do not receive a full and complete debriefing and report on the investigation and its results, I will conduct my own investigation into the matter.
Friday, well after I sent in the above column to the Sun-News, City Manager Stuart Ed responded, acknowledging receipt of the letter to Montoya and adding:
In my capacity as Las Cruces City Manager, I have direct oversight of the Chief of Police and Las Cruces Police Department. This is the first I have heard of these issues. While I am grateful you have made me aware of them, I confess it is disappointing such issues were not vetted and resolved at the lowest levels possible with my involvement through open discussion and the courtesy of a frank and honest face-to-face dialogue sooner.
You have my assurance I will do everything in my power to bridge the apparent communication gap between your office and the Police Department. To that end, I propose facilitating process improvement meetings between you and Police Chief Montoya to insure all lines of communication, professional courtesy, and service to the community remain steadfast and responsive and that our Police Department
works in close partnership with your office at all times.
I believe we have a well-led Police Department and have complete faith and confidence in Chief Montoya and his leadership. I know both he and I are eager to vet and correct any operational issues between our two organizations. I am confident we can successfully address any and all concerns and come to a resolution that insures our community continues receiving responsive case investigation and
prosecution services from both the Police Department and the District Attorney's Office. Let us begin with open and honest dialogue at the top between you, myself,and the Chief of Police. You have my assurance I will shepherd this important partnership in my capacity as City Manager.
Ed's letter is calm and constructive, neither apologizing profusely nor fanning the flames by undue defensiveness; but it doesn't answer D'Antonio's questions. It does say the City will reach out to the D.A.; and obviously we should all, with the possible exception of Chan's defense counsel, hope that happens soon and leads to a full and frank exchange of information about Palos's allegations -- as well as improved cooperation on future cases.