Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone: Perspectives On A National Conversation

By Chief Dino Sgambellone
Los Alamos Police Department

Recent events at the national level have re-ignited a passionate conversation about police-community relations.

Locally, this conversation, along with the murder of five Dallas Police Officers and police shooting deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota, has also generated some concern within the community.  Specifically, citizens want to know how Los Alamos Police Department officers are trained and what policies are in place that address racial bias and overall professional conduct. 

The Los Alamos Police Department is in the process of seeking National Accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Through this effort, the department evaluates each existing policy to ensure the department can meet professional standards as identified by the Commission. These standards are designed to strengthen crime prevention and control capabilities, formalize essential management processes, establish fair and nondiscriminatory personnel practices, improve service delivery, solidify interagency cooperation and coordination, and, boost citizen and staff confidence in the agency. Accreditation is achieved through an on-site inspection, where the agency must show proof of compliance with each standard. There are currently 484 standards. Though we may not be able to schedule our inspection until late 2016 or early 2017, we have already begun to meet many of these standards internally. 

To support this process, we also invest heavily in community-based programming and collaboration. With programs such as Safety Town, Coffee With a Cop, and the School Resource Officers we have in our schools, our intent is to earn the respect and trust of those we serve by letting people see us as regular people.

Our process includes various analyses with respect to how we interact with different racial and ethnic groups and whether or not those interactions appear to have a disparate impact or bias. For example, when evaluating response to resistance in 2015, 399 people were arrested during over 13,000 calls for service. Of those, 10 required officers to respond to some sort of resistance representing 2.5 percent of all field arrests and .00075% of all calls for service.  In total, 75 percent of all response to resistance involved a Caucasian and 21 percent involved a Hispanic. There were no African-Americans involved. Overall response to resistance represents a significantly low percentage and one that, in my view, is a product of several factors, including a quality background and hiring process, on-going and relevant training, and the fostering of an internal culture that reflects a commitment to the community through a high standard of professional conduct.

So, with all this vetting and training, why do bad things happen? Being a police officer is not easy. Some people, including people within this community, make no secret about their hatred of the police. We are called “pigs” and various other names, spit on, and assaulted. People lie about their interactions with the police. People tell their children not to talk to us. Many of us personally know an officer that has been shot or killed in the line of duty.  We regularly deal with tragedy and see awful things that no one should see. 

When bad things happen, most times it is in response to an anti-social behavior that gets the police called. Of the millions of police contacts with citizens in this country each day, very few result in a response to resistance (use of force). Of those, even less involve a lethal use of force, and a very small amount result in a death. Of those that do, most are determined to be justified. And yet, it would appear by most news accounts that the profession as a whole engages in lethal force indiscriminately and on a regular basis.  This is simply not true.   

When a lethal use of force occurs that is not determined to be justified, it is for one of two reasons. First, officers are human and though well trained, it is not always easy to make the right decision in a split second under less than ideal circumstances. As such, officers may use deadly force when they shouldn’t. This isn’t because they have a malicious intent and the race of the officer and citizen is not relevant. Bad things are going to happen between white officers and minorities. It does not make them racist. 

The second reason is that an infinitesimal number of officers shouldn’t be officers and they use their authority to exploit their own personal bias. When these situations occur, we have a system in place to properly investigate and prosecute such cases. 

But, here we run into a couple of other issues. First, what is shown on the news is never enough to make even an informed decision, whether it is on video or not. A video cannot tell you what the officer actually saw, heard, smelled, etc.  Much of the “eye-witness” accounts are shown to be inaccurate or false. Perhaps the situation in Baltimore serves as an example of this; an overzealous prosecution was based on initial hype that had little basis in fact and has not been supported in a court of law.  It is not fair to the officer to be tried and found guilty by the media. A community needs to allow the judicial process to work. If the officer did something he or she should not have done, then let the process address that conduct appropriately. However, what frequently occurs is that many people want to jump to an immediate conclusion, and in such cases like Baltimore, anything other than a guilty verdict is merely representative in their eyes of “a corrupt system.” No justice, no peace. 

Secondly, each situation involving a white officer and an African-American is viewed by some as being automatically a result of a racist encounter. The viewpoint is frustrating in that it stalls effective dialogue. How can you have a productive discussion, when you’re automatically viewed as a racist? 

I am passionate about these issues. I am proud to be a Law Enforcement Officer and I am proud to be a member of the Los Alamos Police Department. I can assure you that the Los Alamos Police Department has dedicated employees who are highly trained, service-oriented, and character-driven, who go about their work each day in an unbiased and professional manner. I can also state that we are human. We hold ourselves to a high standard and when we do make a mistake, we address it appropriately and move forward. The errors make us human — not racist, biased, incompetent, or apathetic. 

For those citizens who have dropped off cards, flowers, cakes, letters etc. this week, I thank you on behalf of the entire department for your support. For those who do not support the police, or are unsure and concerned about recent events, we will strive to earn your trust. Until then, call us if you need to. We will still respond in an unbiased and professional manner and be prepared to help you whenever we can. That’s the officer who works in this community and who is committed to Public Safety. That’s who we are.