This story appears in both The Paper and the Santa Fe New Mexican through a partnership to bring our readers the best in reporting from the legislature.
A Democratic state lawmaker introduced a bill Monday that calls for sweeping police reforms, in particular restricting officers’ use of physical force and requiring officers to intercede when they witness inappropriate use of force by a colleague.
Senate Bill 227 came less than a day after a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a man while responding to a fight near an Albuquerque elementary school. The case was still under investigation Monday evening. Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, the sponsor of SB 227, said she knew nothing about the incident when she announced the new bill. “It just makes it much more important,” she said.
Among other measures, SB 227 would prohibit law enforcement officers from using force unless they had first tried all possible deescalation efforts. It also would ban the use of chokeholds, rubber bullets and tear gas. The legislation would require agencies to revise their training procedures to ensure officers learn how to handle crisis situations before turning to deadly force, Lopez said.
“To make a change in a system, you have to get back to the root,” she said. “This legislation goes back to the basics, to where law enforcement officers are trained. If you have something in the law that says you can no longer use chokeholds, use rubber bullets, no longer use no-knock warrants, that changes the way that our law enforcement academics train future officers, which causes the system to change.”
It’s possible, she said, some local law enforcement agencies already follow some of the bill’s proposals — the city of Santa Fe, for instance, has banned so-called no-knock warrants, in which a judge gives officers permission to enter a home without warning. Lopez said the bill would create consistency statewide.
She cited the controversial death in May of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, as an example of the tragic consequences of allowing police officers to cross the line.
Elaine Maestas, whose sister was killed by Bernalillo County deputies in 2019, said SB 227 is long overdue. Law enforcement officials have said Maestas’ sister, Elisha Lucero, rushed at deputies with a knife when they arrived at her home in response to a 911 call from family members seeking aid amid the woman’s mental health crisis. Lucero, who was shot 21 times, died at the scene.
“It’s crucial we have consistent, clear standards when it comes to the use of police force statewide,” Maestas said. “Elisha’s death is just one of many that illustrate that desperate need for change in our state.”
In recent years, New Mexico has ranked as the No. 1 state for deadly police shootings per capita. The website Mapping Police Violence reports there were 164 police shootings in the state between 2013 and 2020. Police reform advocates in the state long have called for law enforcement agencies to implement measures to protect the public and provide more accountability.
Barron Jones, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said he believes Lopez’s bill is “hands down the strongest” police reform legislation in the country. “This has been a long time coming,” Jones said.
Along with restricting police conduct, SB 227 would require a number of new accountability measures. If it is passed into law, local agencies will have to report the details of any police action involving force to the state Department of Public Safety, including any measures officers used to deescalate tensions and whether the person injured or killed by officers showed any signs of mental impairment.
Agencies would have to submit a report to the state within 30 days of an incident and post the report on their website for public access. “We hand over a lot of trust to law enforcement agencies throughout the state, and the public should be able to see and gauge how that department is doing when it comes to serving and protecting their constituents,” Jones said.
H.L. Lovato, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, wrote in an email his agency had not yet seen a final draft of the bill and could not comment on it. “We will review as soon as it is published,” he said.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the Governor’s Office also had not seen the legislation but would review it. Lopez said she has been speaking with Lujan Grisham about the measure and hopes to secure the governor’s support.
Lopez’s proposals follows two smaller reform measures signed into law after a special session last year. One new law sets stricter body camera guidelines for officers, requiring them to keep their cameras recording at all times during encounters with the public. The recorded footage must kept by the agency for at least 120 days. This week’s shooting involving a Bernalillo County deputy is the first to involve a body camera since that agency began using them in compliance with the law.
The second law enacted after the special session established the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission, a nine-member panel tasked with making recommendations to the Legislature on reforms to address civil rights violations.
Lopez said her bill will go first before the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee, possibly by next week.