SANTA FE — In a state that’s seen its share of unrest over police brutality and systemic racism, police reform legislation is lacking as the special session of the Legislature heads into the third day. A bill passed by the Senate and another by the House late Friday night have already received criticism for not going far enough while Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has blocked two other reform bills from being heard.
After partisan debate, the Senate approved a bill (SB 8) sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes that would require law enforcement officers to use body cameras. The bill would also mandate that officers who are convicted of unlawful use of force have their law enforcement certification revoked.
Several Republican Senators strongly opposed the bill, with Sens. Gregory Baca and Mark Moores citing a lack of input from law enforcement.
Cervantes said the bill would guarantee that officers who are found guilty of unlawful use of force, like chokeholds, can’t find work at other departments.
“As we’re seeing at the national level, when you see too many of these officers, we find out they have two, three, four, five, 10, 15 prior incidents and they’re never admonished or lose their job because of that,” Cervantes said. “So what this bill does is whenever an individual has been convicted of any of those offenses, they’re decertified forever.”
There was no discussion about the bias inherent in the court system and the long history of law enforcement evading convictions on a myriad of offenses.
The bill passed in a 31-11 vote and will go to the House for review.
Also on Friday, the House passed a bill (HB 5) that would establish a Civil Rights Commission to study qualified immunity, a protection that makes it almost impossible for officers to be sued for constitutional rights violations, as the New Mexico Political Report examined ahead of the session. The bill has already received some criticism on Twitter.
Commenting on a Daily Lobo reporter’s post about the session, New Mexico resident and law student Isaac Green said that in moving to study qualified immunity rather than taking direct action on the issue, the legislature is “kicking the can down the road on police accountability in a state that desperately needs it.”
Green is working for Loevy and Loevy, a nationally recognized civil rights law firm. He said New Mexico is behind many other states in creating a cause of action for constitutional rights violations.
“In the midst of a national awakening on police brutality, the best the Democratic-controlled state government in New Mexico can do is form a committee,” Green told the Daily Lobo. “Maybe it’s because they’re afraid of how many claims they’ll have to start paying out if such a cause of action is created.”
Chelsea Van Deventer, a former board member of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, tweeted that the bill does not fix qualified immunity and that people shouldn’t “be placated by this ridiculousness.”
Lujan Grisham hasn’t placed two other reform bills on the call as of now, meaning that as the session moves into the third day, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be heard.
As the Daily Lobo reported, one of the bills was intended to address the Peace Officer’s Employer-Employee Relations Act, which makes investigating police misconduct more difficult. The law is echoed in police union contracts to hinder internal investigations.
“It’s not about the good cop or bad cop dynamic. It’s whether, as an institution, cops are held accountable for misconduct,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas said.
The other reform bill not on the call, SB 17, would revise the process of reporting and investigating use of force, primarily by standardizing how jurisdictions across the state review cases of officers killing people or inflicting great bodily harm. The process of reviewing police shootings is a longstanding problem in the state, as several New Mexico In Depth investigations have discovered.
The legislation was introduced by Sens. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Reps. Gail Chasey and Patricia Roybal Caballero. A slightly different version of the bill, introduced by Sedillo Lopez, failed at the 2020 regular session.
Ortiz y Pino said the legislators’ constituents — including the group Vecinos Unidos, who were involved in efforts to call attention to police violence in Albuquerque in the 1980s — have been raising concerns about the Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office for years.
APD has long been known as one of the most violent police forces in the country — in 2018 and 2019, Albuquerque police shot 11 people, per Washington Post police killing data. At recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, some protesters carried signs reading “Fuck APD” and “Defund the police.”
Nora Sackett, press secretary for the governor’s office, told the Daily Lobo “just because something’s not on the call doesn’t mean the governor doesn’t support it — as the governor has repeatedly said, this special session is being held in incredible circumstances given the ongoing public health crisis, underscoring the necessity to address issues that the legislature can act swiftly on.”
In sharp contrast, Sedillo Lopez emphasized the urgency of increasing police accountability.
“Increasing timeliness, transparency and accountability in investigation and prosecution when a police action results in death or great bodily harm is at least as important as balancing the budget,” Sedillo Lopez said. “When the public loses confidence in our institutions, our democracy is imperiled. Now is the time to act.”
This delay in passing significant legislation comes as some in Albuquerque argue that reform is not enough and APD should be abolished, as the Daily Lobo previously reported.
Spencer Butler and Andrew Gunn contributed reporting to this article.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bladvs