SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Is police misconduct kept secret in New Mexico? Protests this year have renewed a push for police reforms focused on accountability and transparency.
“I think we’ve seen across the country, and certainly here in New Mexico, that public trust around our police departments has eroded,” said Steve Allen, the former director of public policy with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico.
“It is true that the relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve right now is strained for obvious reasons,” New Mexico Department of Public Safety Secretary Tim Johnson said.
In response this summer, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham created the Council for Racial Justice and threw her support behind legislative proposals, including “making police disciplinary history a matter of public record.” “Every single thing has to be on the table right now,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said during a news conference in June.
Currently, each law enforcement agency in New Mexico can interpret the state’s public records law differently. For instance, KRQE News 13 has obtained stacks of records over the years detailing internal affairs investigations and the discipline of officers with the Albuquerque Police Department, but many other departments in the state will not let the public see those records.
The City of Belen refused to release records to KRQE after a Belen police officer was investigated twice in July for his conduct. In Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Reporter is suing the police department over its policy to keep disciplinary records secret. In addition, while investigating a tip about a New Mexico State Police officer, KRQE learned NMSP also has a policy of refusing to release officers’ disciplinary records.
That means you may never hear about alleged misconduct unless an officer is charged criminally or someone sues them in civil court. The latter is how surveillance video surfaced of DWI suspect Ryan Cordova in handcuffs as State Police Officer Peter Romero got physical with him. Cordova sued Romero in February, accusing the officer of assault and battery for “kneeling on his head and neck, slamming his head into the wall and kicking him.”
VIDEO BELOW: DWI suspect claims surveillance video shows officer assaulting him
As far as whether Officer Romero broke any NMSP department policies or was disciplined, State Police will not say. The incident happened last year. It went public this year and about a month later, Officer Romero quietly retired.
“Transparency should be the policy,” said Shannon Kennedy, a civil rights attorney. “There’s no reason that, if someone signs up to protect and serve a community, that if they’re disciplined that somehow becomes a secret that they can keep.”
Kennedy has taken the Department of Public Safety (DPS), which oversees New Mexico State Police, to court over police records. She won a case this year that went all the way up to the state Supreme Court. “The Department of Public Safety, State Police, has been an entity that has been very spotty in terms of responses to public records requests,” said Kennedy.
KRQE News 13 also spoke to Tim Johnson about NMSP public records requests. He was Gov. Lujan Grisham’s State Police chief at the time, and she has since promoted him to interim Department of Public Safety Secretary.
“As an agency, we try to be as transparent as we possibly can,” Secretary Johnson said. “I lean on our lawyers, DPS lawyers, for advice on this and I’m told we are following the policy and the law.”
State law does not make it illegal to release disciplinary records. As previously mentioned, APD already releases them. However, police departments that choose to keep them private cite an exception to the state’s open records law. It says “letters or memorandums, which are matters of opinion in personnel files” are exempt.
In addition, a 1977 New Mexico Supreme Court ruling took it a step further, specifically saying “disciplinary action” and other “matters of opinion” can be withheld. The opinion stated the legislature anticipated there could be documents concerning disciplinary action that “might have no foundation in fact.”
What about when an investigation does find that the facts show an officer violated department policy though?
“You said it’s important to hold officers accountable. You feel like your department is pretty transparent. So, how is the public supposed to know that your actions are in line with your words, that you are holding your officers accountable if that process is not public?” KRQE asked DPS Secretary Johnson.
“I think that’s an excellent question,” said Secretary Johnson. “I could… you know, the only thing I could say at this point is to assure them that we are holding our officers accountable and that we do take every complaint, every issue that comes to this office, to this department very seriously.”
Secretary Johnson said that he can understand both sides of the issue. “As an agency head, I can understand why some of that stuff is confidential to ensure that the employee-employer relationship is good.”
For instance, some critics worry opening up an officer’s personnel file could harm someone’s reputation over frivolous infractions or be used unfairly to discredit officers who have to be trusted to testify as witnesses in court. Plus, there is a concern for some that, with so much pressure and scrutiny, who would even want to be a police officer?
Still, for Johnson’s part, he said he is not against reform. “I also understand if the public, who we serve, wants that changed so that they can know what their officers have done, we work for them and, through the Legislature, that could be changed,” Secretary Johnson said.
So, despite the largest police department in the state, APD, already releasing disciplinary records, other departments may not follow suit unless state law is changed to require it. “The public will get the policing they demand,” Secretary Johnson said.
In 2015, public radio station WNYC found disciplinary records were completely open in 12 states. That number seems to be growing, with states like New York and New Jersey moving to make those records public this year.
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