Judge sides with officer fired by Albuquerque chief

The officer was accused of using his body camera to record a civilian police investigator

By Ryan Boetel
Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Of course police officers don’t like being investigated for alleged misconduct.

That appeared to be a key underlying point in the finding of a state Law Enforcement Academy administrative judge who ruled that an Albuquerque police officer fired amid accusations he tried to intimidate a civilian police investigator didn’t commit “conduct unbecoming of an officer.”

The administrative judge recommended that the Law Enforcement Academy Board take no action against former APD officer Steve Hindi’s certification — a ruling that if upheld would make Hindi eligible to work for another police agency in New Mexico.

The board is chaired by Attorney General Hector Balderas.

APD Chief Gorden Eden fired Hindi last year after Hindi was accused of using his on-body camera to record Civilian Police Oversight Agency investigator Erin O’Neil when she interviewed him about a citizen complaint.

Hindi then tried to look up the woman’s personal information through a federal law enforcement database that contains private information, according to city records.

Eden fired Hindi and sent the board a letter explaining his reasons. Hindi was subsequently allowed to retire in return for dropping an appeal of his termination to the city Personnel Board.

The administrative judge wrote in the report that O’Neil “should be prepared to encounter personnel that will be less than happy to be there, and should expect a less than cordial encounter on a regular basis.”

The judge’s name wasn’t included in the report, which was completed after a March 9 hearing. The findings were made after an informal hearing with the judge, Hindi, his attorneys and two officers from Albuquerque police’s internal affairs unit.

The administrative judge also said Hindi “had reason to be uncomfortable with the police oversight office” because in the past he had written a different civilian investigator a traffic citation.

And the judge found O’Neil did not appear to be intimidated because she smiled during the interview, according to the footage Hindi recorded.

The executive director of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency in Albuquerque called that review of Hindi’s case a “one-sided” report and noted that the civilian agency wasn’t asked to participate.

Edward Harness, the executive director of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, said his agency wasn’t contacted by the state academy reviewing the case. He said it would have presented its side given the opportunity.

“I’m not sure exactly why we weren’t invited to be involved at all, which was disappointing,” Harness said. “When I evaluate who did present (to the administrative judge), I understand why (the report) was so one-sided.”

The CPOA is one of the new agencies set up in response to a reform agreement the city has signed with the U.S. Department of Justice after the DOJ investigation found a pattern of excessive force and other problems.

Hindi appealed his termination to the city’s Personnel Board. Midway through an appeal hearing, the city and Hindi struck a deal allowing him to retire as long as he doesn’t seek further employment with the city.

City Attorney Jessica Hernandez said at the time that the deal was made because the board had recently overturned officer Jeremy Dear’s termination and the city is litigating Dear’s position in District Court.

“The City disciplined Steve Hindi as it believed was appropriate based on his violation of the Albuquerque Police Department’s Standard Operating Procedures and City Policy, and he is no longer an APD officer,” Eden said in a statement last week. “The Law Enforcement Academy Board is tasked with making decisions related to his law enforcement certification based on laws governing that Board.”

The Law Enforcement Academy Board, which has authority to suspend or revoke police officers’ certifications, will review the administrative judge’s findings before taking action on Hindi’s certification.

No one from the academy board returned messages left last week and Tuesday seeking comment.

The report also says that Hindi had been disciplined by Albuquerque police for not cooperating with civilian investigators previously in his career. He had requested the office not to investigate complaints against him but instead send the complaints to internal affairs investigators with Albuquerque police, according to the judge’s report.

Criminal charges can be filed against police officers who misuse the database, though no charges were ever brought against Hindi.

Another Albuquerque police officer, Regina Sanchez, was found to have misused the database last year. She was suspended for a week.

Copyright 2016 the Albuquerque Journal

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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