Tabitha Clay is an investigative journalist with a focus on criminal justice and policing. She previously reported for the Rio Grande Sun.

Since 2004 the New Mexico State Police have been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA®), which bills itself as the “gold standard in law enforcement.”

Accreditation requires an on-site review every four years, but the rest of the time NMSP is responsible for self-reporting their actions and compliance both good and bad to CALEA.

NMSP Captain Mitchell Maestas, who oversees the agency’s accreditation bureau and advanced training department, says the self-reporting and review by an outside agency is one of the chief benefits of the CALEA accreditation process. 

“We’re always striving to be an elite organization,” Maestas said. “The accreditation provides an extra layer of transparency and professionalism, not only for our own personnel but also for the public. CALEA accreditation means an outside entity is reviewing all of our policies and procedures as well as our outcomes involving the use of force or disciplinary actions.”

CALEA accreditation is a voluntary process, and not all agencies undertake it. It’s also costly for smaller departments, which may not have the large budget NMSP commands. NMSP Lt. Mark Soriano said the agency pays an annual fee of $5,730 to maintain its accreditation. 

According to their literature, CALEA goals include strengthening crime prevention and control, formalizing management procedures, creating fair personnel practices, improving interagency cooperation and increasing community and staff confidence in police agencies.

CALEA even claims to help departments avoid civil lawsuits. According to their literature, accredited agencies are “better able to defend themselves against civil lawsuits. Also, many agencies report a decline in legal actions against them, once they become accredited.”

When asked to quantify the number of agencies that have seen this benefit, CALEA Regional Program Manager Mark Mosier said that information would have to be attained on a department-by-department basis.

“Many of our client agencies have mentioned that their legal departments are able to produce documentation and better able to defend an agency hit with a civil suit because of the requirements that CALEA mandates,” Mosier said. “Now, we can never determine if CALEA accreditation alone keeps an agency from having a civil suit being filed against them, but their legal department can determine whether a reduction of civil suits occur over a given time period (before accreditation and after accreditation).”

Certifications and Insurance

Another benefit CALEA claims to provide is a reduction in insurance costs. 

“I do not have current numbers of agencies who have experienced recent reductions in liability coverage as a result of CALEA, but they are out there and would need to be individually asked,” Mosier said.

Rising insurance premiums have been a concern for all law enforcement agencies for years, even more so in New Mexico since the passage of the New Mexico Civil Rights Act (HB4) during the 2021 legislative session. The act removed qualified immunity as a defense and raised the monetary cap for civil rights lawsuits against public bodies.

New Mexico Sheriff’s Association President and Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace said the Act caused insurance rates for departments across the state to “go through the roof,” although he wasn’t able to put an exact dollar figure on the increase. New Mexico Counties, the association that includes all 33 counties in the state, spoke out against the Civil Rights Act, alleging that it would increase insurance premiums and other costs. A request for comment by The Paper. regarding increases received no response. 

Law enforcement insurance premiums for liability are based on the number of successful claims, so departments with a lot of settlements or lost court cases for excessive use-of-force or other civil rights violations may see an increase in premiums in years to come. There simply isn’t enough data to conclusively make that determination yet.

CALEA claims to reduce insurance premiums, but Mace said he was aware of one sheriff’s office that went through the process several years ago seeking lower insurance costs that never realized any benefit.

“CALEA right now gives you a fancy sticker and a plaque on your wall, and you get to say you’re accredited,” Mace said. “The Valencia County Sheriff’s Office went through the process [several years ago], and what we learned from that was they spent a whole lot of money to get accredited, but all they got in return was a sticker for their units and a plaque for their wall.”  

Mace says one of the problems with CALEA accreditation is that it’s not suitable for small departments.

“A lot of our sheriff’s offices can’t meet the CALEA standards, which include having policies for K-9 units, and other things that the smaller counties don’t have,” Mace said. “It just doesn’t make sense for those small departments to put those sorts of policies in place.”

Mace said the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association is working with New Mexico Counties to create a statewide accreditation program for sheriff’s offices. He said, unlike CALEA where taxpayer money goes to an organization outside of the state, this program would be a part of the existing county infrastructure, which he thinks will reduce costs to law enforcement agencies both as they seek accreditation and as they pay insurance premiums. But that’s not the only benefit of having a statewide accreditation program, Mace said.

“For a citizen, the benefit of the accreditation system we’re working on would mean that the policies and procedures for law enforcement would remain the same from county to county,” Mace said.

The Honor System

In the end law enforcement accreditation and oversight is only as good for the public as law enforcement leaders allow them to be. Because, like most things in law enforcement oversight, CALEA requires self-reporting from departments.

And there’s little to no evidence that police are capable of holding each other accountable and meeting the requirements of law.

A 2019 story in the Rio Grande Sun revealed that police across the state had failed to meet training requirements for in-service or biennium training. (The training requirements are akin to the continuing education classes lawyers and doctors must take to maintain their licensing.)

That story noted that some law enforcement officers hadn’t completed their training or reported the completion to the Law Enforcement Academy Board in almost a decade. However, police officers, unlike lawyers, don’t lose their license if they don’t complete the training.

Attorney General Hector Balderas is the chair of the LEA Board. He sent a September 2019 letter directing LEA Director Kelly Alzaharna to complete a “comprehensive analysis of law enforcement agencies through the state to determine agency compliance” with the in-service training requirements and to issue notices of non-compliance to any lacking agencies.

Balderas again mentioned requesting the in-service training audit in a June 2020 LEA Board meeting, saying Alzaharna was to complete an inventory of training compliance for all officers within the state. Alzaharna is ultimately accountable to the board, which is made up of law enforcement officials and members of the public.

Still, there is no record of that inventory or analysis ever being completed. Records requests for the completed audit have been pending with the LEA’s records department for almost a month, with results not yet available. A record request sent to Balderas’ office returned only the September 2019 letter requesting the work be done. No record or any completed report from Alzaharna has yet been produced.

The Department of Public Safety, which oversees both NMSP and the LEA, was unable to provide any answers about in-service training or the status of the audit by press time. 

For now there’s no way for the public to know how recently an officer received training, or if they have ever completed any of the newer training requirements such as de-escalation of situations with mentally ill people or crisis resolution.

There is a gray area where in-service training is concerned, due to the wording of N.M. State Statute 29-7-7.1 which states, “All certified police officers who are eligible for in-service training shall, during each 24 months period of employment, complete a minimum of 40 hours of in-service law enforcement training. … Failure to complete in-service law enforcement training requirements may be grounds for suspension.” 

It’s the “may be grounds for suspension” part of the law that provides the gray area. For over a decade, the LEA Board has interpreted this to mean that suspension does not automatically follow a failure to complete in-service training, and as such, there is little to no incentive for officers to abide by the law and actually attend the training. And that training makes a difference. 

The first issues often raised during excessive force lawsuits relate directly to an officer’s training, making in-service training not only vital for citizen and officer safety, but important for agencies seeking to lower insurance premiums. 

The training compliance, like NMSP compliance with CALEA standards, is entirely dependent on the honor system. And the public just has to trust that those we have entrusted to enforce the law are following the law themselves.