BELEN — The Belen police chief announced the formation of a citizens’ advisory committee for the department at last week’s city council meeting.
“The committee will meet monthly to discuss topics that directly affect citizens, such as officer accountability, traffic control, narcotics, use-of-force policies and property and violent crimes,” Belen Police Chief James Harris told the councilors and mayor. “I believe together we can address many issues concerning the city of Belen. With the help of these civic-minded individuals, we can improve the quality of life.”
Other issues the committee will discuss include vagrancy, officer pursuits, community event planning and community policing initiatives.
The chief said the committee will have its first meeting on Thursday, Sept. 17, to select a chairperson and begin assessing which issues to tackle first.
The committee is comprised of eight residents nominated by the governing body, one resident nominated by the Belen Police Department Union and one of BPD’s command staff.
Those serving on the committee are Gerald Espinoza, Benji Torres, Cody Wakefield, Pete Benavidez, Logan Jeffers, Barbara Horton, Randy Gettings and Mike Moreno.
In a phone interview last week, Harris said the committee was something he wanted to implement.
“It’s something that needs to be done. With the climate in today’s society something that’s very important is to have open lines of communication with the community,” Harris said. “The best way to do that is to have a diverse group of individuals who can speak for the community and bring ideas to the table.”
The police chief said it is also important for the department to have accountability to the community.
“People are really putting the department under the microscope right now. There’s a lot of mistrust and suspicions about (police) departments because information isn’t being shared,” he said. “If we have the opportunity to share and get the perspective of the community, and vice versa, we will be able to do what’s best for the community.”
The chief continued, saying this was not an oversight committee with authority over the department.
“This is an advisory committee to get the advice of the community and share information back and forth,” he said. “We will be doing things like reviewing policies and use of force. It’s more for awareness of what is going on to keep the community advised.”
One of the biggest goals Harris has for the committee is to build trust between the department and the community.
“The public doesn’t trust police and that is not something that is unique to Belen or Los Lunas or Valencia County,” he said. “The nation is screaming for accountability and information. A lot of this can be overcome just by having open lines of communication.”
Harris said community members often ask why the police are or aren’t taking action on certain problems.
“They ask, ‘Why do we have so many drugs in our community? Why aren’t the police doing something?’ From an outsider looking in, that’s a very understandable thought process,” he said. “People need to understand there are realities that require us to not violate peoples civil rights.”
The committee is a way for members of the public to bring concerns and complaints about how the department is operating directly to the chief, he said.
The department is setting up a phone tip line for residents to call with suggestions or complaints, Harris said. There will also be a link on the department’s Facebook page that will take people directly to the BPD section of the city website.
On the site will be several forms to offer suggestions, compliments and complaints. Harris said the city’s IT department is getting those forms set up and they should be functional soon.
While the advisory committee meetings would be limited to only committee members, there will most likely be town hall meetings in the future. The committee will make regular reports to the city council after each of its meetings.
“This is all about building bridges between the community and the police,” Harris said.