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

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New Mexico law enforcement is required to receive dozens of hours of additional training every two years in order to keep their certification. But who keeps track of that training? What if nobody is? Records obtained from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy (LEA), the agency responsible for providing training oversight, show they simply haven’t been keeping track of training for any of the state’s more than 5,000 officers. In fact, the records the LEA provided seem to indicate that the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) in particular hasn’t maintained adequate officer training for years.

Each cop is required to attend 40 hours of in-service training every two years. The training involves some of the most important aspects of policing, which include interactions with mentally impaired people; child abuse; ensuring child safety when parents are arrested; safe pursuit of vehicles; hate crimes; missing persons; and domestic violence.

That doesn’t mean that the Law Enforcement Academy Board (LEAB) hasn’t tried to get the LEA to audit in-service training compliance. In fact, in September 2019, Attorney General Hector Balderas, who chairs the LEAB, sent a formal letter requesting LEA Director Kelly Alzaharna do just that, as reported in the Rio Grande Sun and in The Paper.

There’s no evidence Alzaharna ever began or completed an audit. A records request to both the LEA and the NMAG returned only the letter from Balderas requesting the audit and no additional records. Still, she reported partial compliance numbers at multiple LEAB meetings.

“We manually put these numbers together over the last couple days,” Alzaharna said during a June 2020 LEAB meeting. “And for the 2018-19 in-service reporting period…thirty-six percent of New Mexico law enforcement agencies fully reported what was required.”

APD was part of the 64 percent of agencies that didn’t fully report during the 2018-19 reporting period, according to LEA records received by The Paper. As of Jan. 14, APD still hasn’t reported completing the training for that period or for the 2020-2021 training period.

“Right now, we have 2,261 officers reporting as completed [child abuse training] out of the approximate 5,216 officers that we have,” Alzaharna told the LEAB while displaying a Microsoft Excel file created by a vendor for ACADIS, software created for police and first responders.

Those numbers are staggering–and incorrect. More accurately, based on the spreadsheet Alzaharna reported to the board, 5,216 officers in the state have completed a total of 2,261 hours of training related to child abuse. Some officers have 12 hours of training; others have none. In fact, according to the spreadsheet, only 1,561 of the state’s cops reported attending child abuse training.

APD Will Start Reporting

APD Spokesperson Rebecca Atkins said the LEA records aren’t accurate, as did APD’s Director of Communications, Gilbert Gallegos.

“We are and have been in compliance with the training aspects of the CASA (Court-Approved Settlement Agreement dealing with use of force) and [New Mexico State] requirements,” Atkins said. “We are proud of the outstanding quality and consistency with which the APD Academy provides relevant training to its officers.”

The LEA records show that some APD officers completed additional training during the past two years, with some attending a class called “Performance Driving,” and most (though not all) APD officers had some form of Crisis Intervention Training. It’s unclear how some, but not all, of the training conducted by APD is reflected in the LEA records.

“Our officers are trained,” Gallegos said. “But my understanding is the records have been retained by APD. I can’t speak for the records the LEA has. Going forward, the [APD Academy] is working to report APD’s records to the state, as required.”

While it’s reassuring to hear from Gallegos that APD officers have completed their training, the lack of related records at the LEA raises concerns about officers throughout the state.  

Department of Public Safety (DPS) Spokesperson H. L. Lovato said one of the major hurdles for enforcing the training requirement is the paper-based reporting system, but he said that the LEA is planning to launch an online reporting system in the spring.

But at present, without contacting individual departments and reviewing training records, there’s simply no way for New Mexicans to know which officers have completed their training and which have not. That fact is problematic in a state that consistently has one of the highest rates of police shootings in the nation.

Assessing Accountability

The need for oversight is what prompted Balderas to ask for the training audit in the first place. According to him, the LEAB was concerned about a lack of information available regarding in-service training, one of the LEA’s main responsibilities.

Balderas didn’t mince words when it came to the Alzaharna’s apparent failure regarding the training audit.

“Alzaharna has been directed to complete the audit by the Chair on behalf of the board, and multiple requests have been made to the Director about the audit at subsequent LEAB meetings, and I have also expressed concern to DPS leadership,” Balderas said.

Alzaharna’s leadership has been called into question before, related to her time as police chief at the North Slope Borough Police Department in Alaska. A former employee pleaded guilty in federal court to stealing over $100,000 in cash from the evidence locker under Alzaharna’s watch. Alzaharna told Alaskan news station KTUU she had not done anything wrong, and no charges have been filed against her.

After The Paper. submitted a request for the audit results, Alzaharna announced at the December 2021 LEAB meeting that just days later she worked with the ACADIS software vendor to analyze the training records.

The ACADIS website posts a quote by Alzaharna under other comments by law enforcement agencies about police reform in 2022. “We’re optimistic about increased funding to tackle some of the baseline issues faced by all law enforcement agencies surrounding hiring, training, and certification,” she stated.

No Response, No Power

Lovato of DPS said the LEA has struggled to provide training due to Covid-19 restrictions, but it’s unclear how those are still impacting training. The LEA website doesn’t show any scheduled training for 2022, although Lovato said that there will be some new officer training classes held. He didn’t say what, if any, plans the LEA had to provide in-service training.

“We did get a warning letter from Director Alzaharna this year, reminding us of the in-service training requirements and the deadline to report,” Española Police Chief Roger Jimenez said last week. “I emailed her after receiving it to ask if the LEA was providing any of the in-service training, or assistance in obtaining the training, but she never responded.”

For now, Jimenez, with approximately 30 officers in his department, like other agency leaders across the state is responsible for finding instructors and conducting training, and that’s not easy to do. However, Jimenez’s department is uniquely positioned to provide training. Jimenez was previously an instructor at the LEA, and EPD Deputy Chief Jack Jones is a former LEA Director. That means, at least in Northern New Mexico, there are two qualified instructors with the experience to provide officer training. That hasn’t gone unnoticed, Jimenez said, and Jones has traveled to other departments like Raton to provide training.

The question of training compliance is important because state statutes say that cops who fail to attend the training can have their law enforcement certificates revoked. Of course, it’s not that simple.

“The Law Enforcement Academy Board does not have the statutory authority to immediately suspend officers who fail to complete in-service training,” NMAG Director of Communications and Legislative Analyst Jerri Mares said.

For an officer’s certification to be suspended, they must receive notification and a formal hearing must be held. The process to suspend the cops currently out of compliance would take months of hearings. The challenge, Mares explained, is that law enforcement certifications never expire.

“Whereas the submission of continuing education is required to renew most occupational licenses such as law licenses or medical licenses, law enforcement certifications are not subject to renewal requirements by statute,” Mares said.

Once an officer obtains a law enforcement certificate, it never expires. The process for revocation, especially related to training compliance, is confusing and cumbersome.

“We support a dramatic overhaul of the Law Enforcement Training Act and it’s in serious need of revision and modernization,” Mares said. “With respect to in-service training, the Legislature could amend the Law Enforcement Training Act to provide for the expiration and renewal of law enforcement certifications, contingent on completion of continuing education, and an accompanying significant increase in LEA funding levels.”

Throwing Some Money at the Problem

Police funding is a hot topic this legislative session, as is crime in general.

“Public safety doesn’t just exist on its own; we have to create it, and support it, and own it,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said during her State of the State address last week, as she highlighted her budgetary request for $100 million in funding for DPS to hire and retain police officers.

But retaining and hiring officers won’t fix the problems with the LEA. If anything, it’s likely to exacerbate them, according to a report from the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC).

“Although researchers generally agree adding officers reduces crime, growing police forces may also have some negative consequences,” the report states. “LEAB is responsible for overseeing police officer training and conduct but has no power to enforce compliance with its reporting requirements or investigations. Making law enforcement agencies’ distributions from the law enforcement protection fund contingent on compliance with the board’s directives would help the board fulfill its mission.”

It’s unclear which next steps the legislature, DPS, the LEA or the LEAB will take to make sure the state’s police officers are properly trained and make sure someone is policing the police.