Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone makes his introductory comments as Black Lives Matter event organizer Sruthi Garimella looks on Saturday afternoon at Ashley Pond Pavilion. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
A large crowd attends the Black Lives Matter event at Ashley Pond Saturday afternoon. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
A large crowd gathered at a Black Lives Matter event Saturday afternoon at Ashley Pond Pavilion to hear a question and answer session with Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone organized by recent Los Alamos High School graduate Sruthi Garimella. Other speakers at the event included Mary Beth Stephens, Tina DeYoe, Heidi Rogers, Erin Green and Mike Adams.
Prior to the event, Garimella noted that although she had offered Sgambellone the questions to review in advance, he had declined to take them. Sgambellone thanked Garimella for her courage and leadership in organizing the event and for inviting him to participate in the dialogue. Several questions had been submitted to Garimella by text and email prior to the event.
Prefacing his comments on LAPD’s use of force policy, Sgambellone mentioned that Department has been nationally accredited through the Commission On Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies since 2018 and just successfully completed its second annual review. He said LAPD officers are required to acknowledge the Department’s use of force policy formally once a year and then throughout the year they have multiple trainings that contribute to that policy in a number of ways, including training on de-escalation. He said part of the use of force policy discusses de-escalation as one of the steps in the continuum of responses.
“In this community for example, we had 11 responses to resistance last year. If you consider we had over 13,000 calls for service and some of those calls for service involved multiple people so there are literally tens of thousands of police-citizen contacts here in the community and of those tens of thousands of contacts we had 11 situations where we responded to somebody’s resistance,” Sgambellone said. “A lot of times those are individuals that are on some sort of substance or intoxicated. Most of those occur actually in our detention center. Of those 11, seven were in the detention center and four were out on the street.”
He said he understands that Los Alamos is a unique community and that he is very thankful for that and the support the Department has received.
“For the most part, we obviously have an extremely low crime rate and it shows in our interaction with the community,” Sgambellone said.
In response to Garimella’s question about “8 Can’t Wait” provisions, Sgambellone said the police department is trained to respond and to be reactive in situations that may require force. He used the example of gas being used in riot situations which offers a solution to a violent situation that is not a lethal solution.
“Nobody likes it. We wish we would never have to engage in that. We’ve had the protest each year in August which has remained peaceful and we’re thankful for that. But we can’t just fail to prepare because if somebody wants to come up and hijack what is a peaceful demonstration we have those tools in our tool box,” he said.
Asked about the LAPD school resource officers, Sgambellone said the program is very well received.
“Our SROs are trusted. They are often confidants to students who rely on them to discuss issues relevant to them. I’d like to think that they offer a chance for folks to see the officers as humans and as somebody that understands, somebody that can be trusted,” he said. “I am very proud to be part of the program.”
Sgambellone noted that to be in the schools, SROs must attend training in which they receive instruction in all types of relevant issues particularly dealing with the schools’ requirements. He said obviously the schools’ safety is paramount but how to interact with students and parents is also important.
Asked about the equipment being used by police departments, Sgambellone noted that in active shooter situations, when “officers show up with a side arm and the bad people have AK-47s” that obviously presents challenges with respect to stopping that individual’s behavior. So police departments have escalated their training in response to the threats that we see across the country, he said.
“I know there’s a lot of consternation about some departments’ use of armored vehicles. I find it interesting that in this community we really don’t think much about the security across the bridge and I’m certainly not trying to put this on them, I think what they do is very important. But the vehicles that they use and the weaponry they use to safeguard materials is likely appropriate given the threat that they face,” Sgambellone said. “Similarly, a lot of officers across the nation have been killed in domestic violence situations. A lot of them have been ambushed approaching that scene. If we had that happen here, we currently don’t have any armor that would allow us to go in and stop that situation. It’s situations like that that cause us to consider different options, not to exhibit a militaristic presence, just to be able to safely negotiate different situations that require a different level of equipment.
He said he hopes discussions like Saturday’s can help him and his fellow officers to hear what the community has to say and to try to be as responsive as they can in a practical way.
“One of your questions was specific to officer intervention. That is not part of our current policy and I’ve seen that and I think it’s a great addition. So that’s one thing we will be adding to our policy,” Sgambellone said. “One would like to think, and I do believe this, that if a similar situation were to have happened here that happened in Minnesota, officer intervention would happen.”
He said he has a lot of respect for his officers and is thankful for them every day, that they do a great job.
“I’m coming up on my 30th year. Things have changed a lot in that time and I think for the better in many ways,” he said.
Going back to Garimella’s question about “8 Cant’ Wait”, Sgambellone noted that LAPD does have a continuum. He said the policy states that you will warn when practical before deploying any type of force.
“Sometimes that’s not practical in certain circumstances but it’s in the policy that when it is you’ll do that,” he said.
Sgambellone said making a police officer’s disciplinary history is a little bit more tricky because of state law, particularly with respect to public records and that some of the records have to be redacted when the Department gets those types of requests under state law.
“I can tell you our compliments greatly exceed our complaints each year. I do publish in our annual report the number of complaints and compliments and I’ve done that since I’ve been here. Also either I contact or one of my senior staff contacts each complainant with either a letter, in person or over the phone, to tell them the results of their complaint and that will continue to happen,” he said. “I think we’ve been very transparent. I regularly publish our crime data so that you know what’s happening in the community. We are one of the safest communities in the nation which is something we are very proud of.”
Sgambellone said that interestingly, LAPD though they would see some different outcomes of COVID such as an increase in domestic violence.
“I did bring in a domestic violence advocate to help care for victims of domestic violence. She has been very busy but we haven’t seen a big uptick in domestic violence thankfully. I think that’s again part of the community we live in and the difference between here and other communities,” he said. “Crime is down except for theft and shoplifting and we were hit by those burglaries of residences a while back.”
Asked if chokeholds allowed under the use of force policy, Sgambellone said that when events such as the death of George Floyd occur, it brings attention to what was specifically written. He noted that a ban on chokeholds is not specifically written in the policy but it is written that officers not use unnecessary force and also when they receive their defensive tactic training it involves area of the body. He said he intends to revise the current policy to specifically mention chokeholds.
Garimella asked Sgambellone if his officers use video cameras and he responded that they use both in-car and body cameras. He noted that LAPD has an accountability system where sergeants audit video on a regular basis to make sure officers provide a high level of service in a respectful way.
Garimella thanked Sgambellone for participating adding that she knew it was a risk for him. The crowd listened attentively throughout the dialog, applauding several comments, particularly the two changes he intends to make to current policy – officer intervention, and adding the specific ban on chokeholds.
Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone during an hour-long dialog on use of force and other LAPD policies at Ashley Pond Pavilion Saturday afternoon. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
This sign drew a lot of attention at Saturday afternoon’s peaceful protest event at Ashley Pond. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Sruthi Garimella and Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone chat prior to Saturday’s Black Lives Matter event at Ashley Pond. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Sruthi Garimella addresses the crowd Saturday at the Black Lives Matter event she organized at Ashley Pond. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com