Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone addresses Los Alamos County Councilors during their meeting Tuesday evening. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
James Whitehead, right, listens to Council members Tuesday evening. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council voted Tuesday evening to take no further action on a petition submitted by James Whitehead and seven other Los Alamos County residents.
The petition called on the Council to address alleged issues of “under-reporting and unreporting” of criminal activity within the County and referred to “recent activity at the Los Alamos Detention Center (LADC) and Uniform Crime Report Return A forms submitted monthly by Los Alamos Police Department to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety.
In addition to Whitehead, the petition was signed by just seven others; Ben Price, Heather Ortega, Monica Charters-MacLean, Matt MacLean, Andrew Ortega, Randi Simmons and Lisa Shin.
Whitehead told the Council members he was there to speak to them about their role in preserving the public trust.
“While I am grateful for the opportunity to run for the office of Sheriff of Los Alamos County and accept the wisdom of the electorate, I have found a disturbing irreverence for factual accuracy in regards to law enforcement in Los Alamos County. It continues to be my opinion that there has been a failure to report by the Los Alamos Police Department,” he said.
He said during his recent campaign for Los Alamos County Sheriff, many stories about unreported crime came to his attention and that while some of the stories were heart-wrenching to those involved “they did not reach the level of crime to where they seemed to fit within the reporting” he reviewed.
“Recently an inmate of the LADC was permitted by Detention Center staff to harass a family within our County. This family reported the harassment as many as five times. Once for each of as many as four phone calls that included three voicemails and once for a letter that was mailed from the Detention Center staff. The local newspapers painted the picture that all was well within the Detention Center but I strongly disagree. If Detention Center staff are not monitoring telephone calls and written letters as required for Detention Center policy, how can Chief (Dino) Sgambellone claim that he is operating a safe and secure facility?” Whitehead read from a prepared statement.
“Unmonitored communications such as in this harassment case can result in the coordination and delivery of drugs and contraband, the intimidation of witnesses and the planning of an escape. How can the Chief possibly know what is going on in the Detention Center, or did he know and just chose to permit the family to be harassed? How did it come to be that LAPD failed to act after so many calls for service. All too often we see the government of this County stand with those who fail to perform their duty and stand against the citizen of this County only to avoid the legal and financial consequences facing the County. So often we find this County attacking the victims and protecting the wrongdoers. It is time for this practice to end,” he said.
Whitehead said on May 3 he brought to light that the crime statistics reported for the County at the NMDPS are much higher than those reported to the County in the Annual Crime Reports. He complained that local newspapers chose to ignore his claim until he posted it on my campaign website and on Facebook. He said a reporter wrote about the issue June 13, 40 days later.
“The editor of the local publication was in the audience when the information initially became public. Why did journalists refuse to cover this subject when it first came to light? Why is it that the Chief’s only explanation for this misrepresentation of criminal statistics appeared, “You just don’t simply add them up”. I’ve seen the data at the state level, and guess what, they simply added them up,” he said.
“When I have spoken with reporters from the local papers regarding this subject, I have been met with nothing but hostility. More puzzling was the absolute devotion to statements issued by Chief Sgambellone. I am unaware of any independent investigation of my claims but so goes with the quality of inquisitiveness of our local scribes,” Whitehead said.
He said the Annual Crime Report should “supplement the data and explain the data reported to the state, not deliberately omit this data”.
“But let us just say for a moment that everything I am claiming is false. Wouldn’t this be indicative of another perhaps equally troubling issue? In 2016, LAPD reported to the NMDPS 99 occurrences of violent crime. Later that number was changed at the County level to be 17. Why was this only changed at the County level and not at the state level? What are we going to do about the people who reported 82 occurrences of violent crime that did not happen? The same thing happened in 2017 when 58 violent crimes were reported to the state then changed to 25 at the County level,” Whitehead said.
He asked the Council to consider conducting an independent audit of the crime statistics reported to both the state and county levels to ensure compliance with the statutory mandates saying “the audit should be conducted by a qualified forensic accounting firm” outside the County. He said the Annual Crime Reports should comply with “the standardized format and structure of content as determined by an appropriate authority”, perhaps a citizen review board, and subject to the review of the Council and that the format should include copies of the monthly reports submitted by the LAPD to NMDPS by the County.
Whitehead also asked for an audit of the safety and security measures at the LADC “with emphasis on communications to and from detainees and the introduction of contraband by visitors, Detention staff and/or others”. He recommended that the LADC be required to “provide drug testing by an independent agency of all detainees and publish a report of these results to demonstrate how effective the Detention Center policies and management have been at eliminating the use of controlled substances within the Detention Center”.
He asked that the Council request that the New Mexico State Police conduct an investigation of the events and relevant responses of LAPD related to “the harassment of the Anthony and Heather Ortega family and publish these results”.
“I recognize the limitations of my position. I am not limited in my ability to exercise my free speech. Please hear the pleas of this family. They deserve a response,” he concluded.
Councilor Pete Sheehey asked Chief Sgambellone to give an answer regarding reporting and asked that a long email sent to the Council explaining how the statistics are required to be submitted to the state under the Unified Crime Reporting (UCR) program be entered into the record. Chief Sgambellone noted that in 2016, 155 crimes were listed in the Annual Crime Report, 153 were reported to the state under UCR and 157 was the number reported to the FBI. He said in 2017 those numbers were 126, 125 and 123 respectively and that those minor variances can be accounted for for multiple reasons under the UCR program.
“The UCR is a program implemented by the FBI in the 1930s and there’s a series of classifications and description of offenses because what may be an assault in one state may be different in another. In fact it’s referred to as battery here whereas many other states refer to it as assault. So that standardized description and definition is utilized under the program. To report under the program we have to follow the guidelines so that’s what we do. Whether or not simple assault should be or could be reported, it isn’t. It does appear on the Return A form but it is not a Part 1 crime,” Chief Sgambellone explained.
Sheehey asked about inmate privileges and whether the County is within its rights to monitor phone calls.
Is it possible for a prisoner to be abusing his privileges in that way and making threats or other obnoxious behavior in our community,” Sheehey asked.
Chief Sgambellone said LAPD can monitor calls by inmates except for conversations that they may have with their legal representation.
“Inmates can utilize the phone system any time they want. They can also write letters and be afforded stationery and writing tools to go and do that. And certainly that conduct is not only allowable but it’s part of their rights and they can continue to do that as long as there’s no violations of the law. In the particular situation that Mr. Whitehead refers to there’s pending criminal action in that case so I would prefer not to discuss specific details,” he said.
Sheehey asked if in general phone and mail privileges are abused or threats are made particularly to witnesses, there is “legal recourse for those people to come forward and get the law acting on their behalf”. Sgambellone answered, “Absolutely”.
Council Chair David Izraelevitz who was present by phone said he thinks the issue of misrepresentation to the FBI of crime data in Los Alamos is a serious one.
“Especially not only if it’s true but especially if it’s due to pressure by superiors or elected officials as has been suggested or implied,” he said. “ I want to ask Mr. Whitehead – this is data that is collected by the FBI so they would be the ones most interested in the accuracy and any kind of fraudulent reporting – so has Mr. Whitehead approached the FBI and if so has he received a response”, he said.
Whitehead responded that he has “not actually approached the FBI at this time”.
“What I have done is I contacted the Department of Public Safety and requested copies under the Inspection of Public Records Act of the FBI Return A forms submitted to the state by the Los Alamos County Police Department which would include Chief Sgambellone as well as the Records Clerk Teresina Berg. The information that was contained in those forms included the Part 1 crimes as the Chief has explained. I focused primarily in my analysis on just those crimes that involve violence. Those were the murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault and I believe aggravated robbery,” he said.
“Obviously we haven’t had a murder in this county since 2008 and I think we are very blessed to have such a peaceful community. Concerning forcible rape, aggravated assault and aggravated robbery not so much. The information that I presented was not information that I created. It was not information that I submitted to the County or to the state. It was information that was submitted to the state by the County government and indicated that there was a much higher level of violent crime in this County than what was being represented in the Annual Crime Reports,” Whitehead said. “As to why that is, I’m not certain. It’s a great question for the Chief. If the month of January there were 10 people that reported they were battered or assaulted. In February when that comes to light that that was a fraudulent report, it seems like these people should be handled accordingly.”
Izraelevitz told Whitehead that he would have expected given the seriousness of the signatories’ paragraph that Whitehead would have contacted the FBI.
“This has come up before where citizens make allegations or possible or potential cases of misconduct in the County. The purpose of the question was to highlight the role of the FBI in handling these and I wanted to verify if you had pursued that which is what I would expect,” he said.
When public comment opened, local resident Joann Temple said she had come across a story in the Los Alamos Reporter Tuesday morning that affected her on a deeply personal level – the story regarding the petition presented by Whitehead.
“I’m not sure why it is coming before the County Council except that it is a platform for certain individuals to garner attention. You see, the story of the assault is my story and it could at any time become a story that affects each one of you in this room. Mental illness knows no boundaries, no social class, no financial strata. It may affect each of us in the form of depression, suicide attempts, domestic violence and yes, assaults. And it may affect individuals and families of all the people in this room.” She said.
“Attempts to vilify the police department in Los Alamos that I believe lie beneath the petition being presented tonight represent misguided agendas perpetrated by individuals that have an ax to grind for their own personal reasons,:” Temple said. “Just like our EMS crews, EMS professionals and medic flight crews, the police do put their lives on the line every day. I applaud their efforts in Los Alamos and take umbrage at attacks from persons who have either just lost an election or those who are just not getting enough attention.”
She said bullies come in all shapes, forms and sizes and bullying is sometimes extremely difficult to identify and discern. She said history shows that bullies’ behavior frequently goes unchecked in the form of rocket attacks against nations in the Middle East, party partisanship in our country and in our elementary and high schools “especially when we are not willing to walk a mile in another’s shoes”.
“I have spoken to the individual that posted the story in the Los Alamos Reporter. (Petition Signed By Whitehead, Shin And Others On Tuesday’s County Council Agenda ) Frankly I sobbed for a while today because I had to face yet again my story and assault in public media. I have a slightly different view since that talk today. But please be aware of the subtle bullying that occurs in Los Alamos every day.” Temple said.
The inmate mentioned by Whitehead in his statement is Temple’s daughter. Additionally, a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Whitehead against Los Alamos County relates to a transfer of property made by the County with Temple at the community horse stable.
“Please as a Council appropriate monies for projects that address public health and mental health issues in our town. Continue to support the police and fire departments
and health care professionals that protect, save and treat the citizens of Los Alamos every day and have a heart for those that suffer over issues that you cannot imagine. Walk a mile in their shoes and as a young songwriter has written, ‘Only kindness matters’,” Temple concluded.
Local Pastor Paul Jaramillo said he was moved by Temple’s testimony. He said something happened to him in 1981 in Albuquerque and that police were called.
“Nothing was ever put out into the public or in the newspapers or anything about what took place and it really affected my life when the media didn’t do something about it. I feel that as much as we love our community it’s a safe place to be but I really believe we’re no longer Mayberry. It’s over with,” he said. “We have some changes coming into our community and it’s time to start realizing they are here. I want to see community coming together and putting a plan together everywhere from mental health to drug support to supporting the homeless in one way or another,” he said. “I thank the officers for the work they do. There’s only so much they can do to help. We have to come together as a community to make this happen. I really believe if we would put some of these stories out in the media a little more – I’m not here to point out the Post or the Reporter or the Monitor in any way – all I’m saying is these stories need to be brought out and these people will start to realize that they are going to be shamed in the public if they are going to commit these crimes.”
Local resident Amy Storey said she had read about the petition and had received many messages from other mothers who have teenagers in high school and certain things were alluded to.
“I just want to say how professional our police department are and how kind and generous they have been to teenagers and their problems. I have so much confidence in the men and women of the police department and I just want to thank them for their kindness in dealing with teenagers and their ups and downs,” Storey said. “So I am surprised at this petition and I have a lot questions about its reasoning and the people who signed it who did run for office and did not get elected and perhaps some of their motivations. I would hope that they would go on and do some other things with their time.”
After proposing the motion to accept the petition without taking action, Councilor Sheehey said he didn’t see any direct action for the Council to take on it.
“That is not to minimize the issues that some of the members of our community have pointed out. I think we’re all aware we do have drug problems, we have domestic violence, bullying problems, we have crime problems. We are lucky they’re not as big as in many places but they’re real and we have to work as a community. I know our police department and our sheriff’s department and our newly elected sheriff all believe in community policing. That means we talk. We communicate. We try to deal with these problems,” he said.
Sheehey said he does not belittle any candidate for losing.
“If you earn 1,200 votes or 2,400 votes and the winner earned more, that’s still a significant number of people in this community that listened to what you had to say and said yes. What you’re saying is important as well. Those of us who are privileged to win an election and represent a community don’t represent just the ones who voted for us, we represent all of the community. It’s our obligation to try to find common ground, to try to find solutions to the problems this entire community faces,” he said. “ I am certainly willing now and at budget time to put money into whether it’s the police department, a social services agency, or mental health. We do have good programs. In some cases we could do better and we need to do better. That’s the real response to this petition so I do not dismiss it, just tonight I don’t see a specific action to take but in the long run you’ve brought out important concerns and I thank you for bringing this petition to the attention of the community and the Council.”
Councilor Morrie Pongratz thanked Jaramillo for his comments.
“Certainly Los Alamos is not Mayberry and I would agree that the community needs to put a plan together with regard to mental health, drugs. I really appreciate the work that our policemen do. That is a tough job and as Ms Storey said, they are kind and generous, but at some points they have to draw the line. I am a bit concerned that we are not monitoring communications in the detention facility. Maybe I didn’t understand that correctly,” he said.
Councilor Izraelevitz said he thought the Council needed to look at what the petition represented because that is what the Council was considering.
“I think anyone who has been involved in public service or social services in Los Alamos understands that we are not and have never been a Mayberry, that we have, have always had and always will have issues because we are a community of real people – crime, homeless, mental health issues and whether those have been highlighted as much as they should be in this community or other communities,” he said.
He said that the discussion was good but that the petition itself was “quite troubling” in its allegations about non-reporting and unreporting of criminal activity within the County.
“That the form submitted to the Department of Public Safety does report higher levels of crime that have not been reported elsewhere – this is what the petitioners allege and I would like to address. I was concerned that Chief Sgambellone reached out to the lead petitioner with information and to have a meeting but apparently that did not happen. That could have happened before the petition was submitted,” he said. “The fact that this made a news article per se is not good because it made allegations of the lack of professionalism of the leadership if not the police force itself.”
He said he was troubled by that even after there was an attempt to clarify the information and that the allegations have continued for several months.
“These are not new allegations and now months later after trying to resolve and educate the community we have to address it again. I don’t believe that there’s merit to these allegations. If someone really felt that there was serious underreporting, there are legal mechanisms or enforcement mechanisms to actually pursue these if that is really what they want to do. If not I would like to reinforce what has been said elsewhere by Council, that we have a very professional, dedicated and well-educated police force. It has not been my experience at all that they are minimizing the criminal activity in Los Alamos. In fact they are probably most aware of any of our local government of these issues and how to approach it,” Izraelevitz said.
Chief Sgambellone spoke to the Los Alamos Reporter following the unanimous Council vote.
“I put those numbers out quarterly so that people are aware of crime in the community and if there’s a misunderstanding about what those numbers mean, then I’m not doing my job if I don’t effectively explain Part 1 crime. So tonight, if that gets us closer to understanding crime in the community then I think it’s a good thing,” he said.
He said he was pleased to hear Council members discuss the possibility of funding additional mental health services for the community and that LAPD will continue to be a good partner helping in those areas affecting the community such as substance abuse and mental health where it can.
“I was also moved that two people had made the decision to come in to the meeting so that they could speak publicly in support of the Department and the professionalism and dedication of the staff of the Department. That means a lot. We will continue to try and meet that high level of expectations every day,” Sgambellone said. “My staff is very professional, dedicated and well-trained and on the crime statistics issue in particular we devote a great deal of resources to ensure the accuracy of our data. I think both the Records Manager Teresina Berg and my Operations Commander Oliver Morris do an exceptional job to verify and report accurately.”
Sgambellone said LAPD does a number of things in the community to promote transparency and trust including weekly media releases on crime in the community.
“For as long as I have been in this job, I have always had an open door policy and I am always happy to speak with members of the public,” he said.