As the 55th session of the New Mexico Legislature picks up steam, state lawmakers have introduced a number of police reform bills. One of note is the return of a bill that would provide reporting mechanisms to investigate police officers after their use of “deadly force” on an individual that leads to great bodily harm or death.
Senate Bill 274, introduced on Feb. 1 by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, aims to reform police accountability laws after a surge in public calls to reduce violent activity by law enforcement. There were 16 fatal police shootings in New Mexico in 2020, according to a database compiled by the Washington Post.
In 2020’s first special session, against the backdrop of the summer’s apex of nationwide protests against police killings and structural racism, a set of police reform bills were introduced. In the end, the only bill to become state law was one requiring police officers across the state to wear body cameras.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) tried pushing lawmakers to introduce a bill last year that would have granted plaintiffs the ability to sue public employees (like police officers), essentially doing away with qualified immunity — a legal doctrine that shields government officials from civil laws that would hold officers accountable for constitutional violations such as the use of excessive force. The proposal led to the creation of the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission, though the original bill died.
The national ACLU recently released a video series on the history of more than a century of how commissions formed in response to police violence have failed, specifically citing commissions created in Chicago (1919), Harlem (1935), Detroit (1967) and Los Angeles (1992).
New Mexico’s previous Law Enforcement Use of Force Reporting Bill, which failed to reach Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk last year after dying in committee, proposed new procedures to be followed after excessive use of force by a peace officer.
That bill would have required that, within 24 hours of an individual suffering great bodily harm or being killed by an officer’s use of force, notice be given to the local district attorney. The DA would then hand a report to the governor and attorney general to evaluate the matter for prosecution, concurrently establishing a public database for these reports.
SB 274 contains the same reporting requirements and would require the governor to keep a log of all investigations, which would be subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act. Attorney General Hector Balderas would also have the authority to prosecute officers found guilty of criminal behavior after incidents involving great bodily harm or death.
Taking much of the same cues from the earlier iteration — reporting mechanisms, a structured timeline and a third party monitor — the current bill’s essence is accountability and transparency, according to Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero.
Caballero said she feels “very confident” about the bill, citing its vetting process by Balderas and input taken from New Mexico State Police.
Sedillo Lopez is likewise optimistic, referring to the bill’s potential movement through the Democrat-majority Legislature.
After the ousting of some key conservative Democrats from the Legislature in the 2020 elections, there blooms a collective confidence among left-leaning policymakers that their progressive bills can finally advance after being blocked in previous years.
“I feel very comfortable about it in the Senate because of the change in the composition of the Senate — where issues of Black Lives Matter, fairness in holding police accountable, transparency, timeliness and freedom from conflicts of interest are very important,” Sedillo Lopez said in a phone call with the Daily Lobo.
Sedillo Lopez said the genesis of the bill was motivated by Elisha Lucero, who, while experiencing a mental crisis, was shot at least 21 times and killed by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) deputies in July 2019.
The responding officers weren’t equipped with body cameras per the resistance of BCSO at the time, and a $4 million settlement awarded to Lucero’s family was reached with Bernalillo County in March 2020.
Elaine Maestas, Lucero’s older sister and next of kin, said she still doesn’t know if the deputies faced proper repercussions and is looking to the bill as a way for other families to receive immediacy and more transparency in the future.
The bill “will set standards, and other families — god willing there (are) no other families — who have to go through this won’t have to suffer like our family and the families that are waiting now to hear something,” Maestas said.
Whether or not the bill will indeed pass both chambers and make it to the governor’s desk remains uncertain until the Legislature kicks into full gear. Furthermore, in the event SB 274 is signed into law, it will take years to collect relevant data to assess the effectiveness of the policy in holding law enforcement more accountable.
For Sedillo Lopez, the pending reform-minded bills are “important first steps, and it’s going to take a lot of effort to continue the path ensuring we have community policing and that we eliminate racism, misogyny and violence from police departments.”
Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist for ACLU-NM who is advocating for the organization’s own police reform bills this session, said he is hoping the bills as a whole will elicit a cultural change.
“Some of these laws — I hope — will bring about a cultural change through osmosis,” Jones said. “The bills (are) there, the policies get in place and folks will start falling in line.”
Various police reform bills passed last year in a number of states, including Colorado and New York, but the long-term consequences of those laws on the state of policing are still opaque.
Andrew Gunn contributed reporting to this article.
Gabriel Biadora is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gabrielbiadora