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A recurring theme in the past special legislative session will continue into this 60-day session: police reform and holding law enforcement accountable for their actions. Although there was no overhaul of the policing system during the special session in July, the statewide mandate for officers to wear body cameras did pass. This year Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Bernalillo) from District 16 and Representative Patricia Roybal Caballero (D-Bernalillo) from District 13, plan on putting forth a new bill aimed at limiting the power of a district attorney’s discretion to charge an officer with excessive use of force. Sedillo Lopez is also working with longtime Senator Gary Ortiz y Pino (D-Bernalillo).
Sedillo Lopez says she plans to file Senate Bill 100 to create more transparency in the relationship between a district attorney and law enforcement. In New Mexico’s many rural towns and counties, this can often prove to be difficult. “While a district attorney should be able to remain fair and impartial, the fact is that in small towns and close-knit communities everyone knows each other or may even be related to one another,” said Sedillo Lopez. She says transparency is a broken link in the chain of police reform and accountability. “If you have a district attorney who is neighbors with an officer of the law who may have committed a crime of excessive force, there is a conflict of interest there.”
The bill calls for the state’s attorney general to be immediately notified if a law enforcement officer has been involved in a case of excessive use of force, such as an officer-involved shooting. The attorney general would then work with the district attorney to determine whether or not justice can be served and to bring more transparency to the case—rather than allow one person to determine whether or not to press charges against the officer.
Vecinos United, an Albuquerque-based community activist group, has been trying for years to get police reform on the table. “We have been fighting for people’s civil rights for years. We believe it is time to put an end to police brutality, and we want to see Governor Lujan Grisham’s support for the bill. We want to see that she stands by her word to usher in police reform,” said Executive Director Andres Valdez.
Sedillo Lopez says she’s working with New Mexico State Police on specific language that would address their concerns of an overly broadbased “excessive use of force resulting in great bodily harm” clause. Police want to make sure that the language is very specific, while still allowing them to do their jobs to the best of their ability. “Their concern is that ‘great bodily harm’ happens only as a direct result of the conduct of the officer, which I think is very fair,” said Sedillo Lopez.
Another police reform bill sure to cause a ruckus at the Roundhouse is a civil rights bill that will be aimed at removing “qualified immunity” for law enforcement. Qualified immunity refers to the defense that is often evoked on behalf of an officer or government official that shields them from being held personally responsible for violating a civilian’s constitutional rights. It also shields them from costly lawsuits. Proponents of the bill cite that there is no current recourse holding a law enforcement officer accountable for serious injury or death that they may have caused.
Several county attorneys have voiced concerns that the bill could put counties required to settle such lawsuits in a huge fiscal hole. Some district attorneys feel more training at law enforcement academies should be the focus, rather than on costly litigation.
As of press time, the proposed bill has not yet been filed.
Major takeaways for these bills:
- Both bills aim to create some sort of level playing field for an officer to be charged or penalized by a lawsuit for using excessive force.
- Both bills are interested in protecting everyday citizens’ civil liberties.
- Both bills are cautiously optimistic and don’t seem to be reaching for major overhaul. Don’t look to either of these bills for some sweeping measurements to defund the police. The aim of these bills is to provide some semblance of accountability, where there currently seems to be a lack of with regard to law enforcement.
Lujan Grisham has been quiet about her support of any police reform bills on the table publicly. Whether or not she’ll support either of these bills if they come across her desk has yet to be determined.