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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The Law Enforcement Academy Board decided the fate of 37 officers and telecommunicators at the April 14 meeting, but why those officers were disciplined is a mystery. Is new leadership at the LEA to blame?

The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy (LEA) has been through a lot of change in the past month, with the departure of previous director Kelly Alzaharna who was replaced by an interim director. Department of Public Safety (DPS) Deputy Cabinet Secretary Benjamin Baker is acting as interim LEA director in the meantime and appeared at his first LEAB meeting in that role on April 14, just seventeen days after he took the helm at the state’s main law enforcement training bureau.

Baker, in his address to the LEA board, gave one of the most detailed reports of LEA activity that the board has heard in recent years presenting actual case numbers, and an update on the way the LEA plans to oversee police training but yet, under his leadership, there is a seeming lack of transparency.

Technology to the Rescue?

The LEA has been plagued for years with problems tracking police training, and delays in processing misconduct cases for officers, but Baker said that will improve soon, thanks to a technology roll-out. For years, the LEA has been working to move from a paper-based reporting system to a digital one, known as ACADIS. But Baker said the change is challenging.

“There are approximately 340, and growing, approved and trained agency ACADIS portal users statewide who can currently view their agency employment rosters and make changes to their employee’s profiles,” Baker told the LEAB. “Some of these changes include adding and subtracting addresses, contact information, and specifics to that employee.”

Baker said the next steps will be having individual agencies enter officer training directly into the state database. Enforcing biennium training compliance is one of the many goals for the LEA, which has failed for years to accurately and completely track police training compliance, but it’s not all going to be easy, Baker said.

“This process has caused a significant amount of change in the business practices at the law enforcement academy as this has been a paper system historically,” Baker said. “And while a majority of agencies have been adapting well and are excited about the change we still have some folks that we are struggling to help.”

The move to create and maintain what equates to a transcript for officer training was welcomed by LEAB Chair Attorney General Hector Balderas.

“We knew the challenges that we were facing but it was also good reporting that really dove into the issues identifying the systemic problems and also some reporters, community leaders, as well as individuals like yourself that have really brought attention to both the complexity of the problems that have lingered for decades,” Balderas said.

Small Changes In the Police Misconduct Backlog

Baker also reported that there is still a backlog of misconduct cases at the LEA, but that the situation is improving. According to his report, there have been 15 cases of law enforcement officer (or telecommunicator) misconduct reported so far during 2022.

“Twelve of those [misconduct complaints] are under review and in the notice of investigation process, two are slated to be adjudicated at today’s meeting, and one is in the notice of contemplated action process,” Baker told the board. “In total to date, the LEAB has 79 total active cases.”

Baker said that those numbers are an improvement over the previous backlog and that the cases being reviewed were much more contemporary than in previous meetings.

“We find ourselves in a place where the discipline cases, due to the diligent work of all parties mentioned are in a much more workable number and in a much more contemporary and timely number particularly for a state the size of New Mexico and the population we serve,” Baker said.

Disciplined, But Why?

Following Baker’s remarks and other business, the LEAB doled out discipline to 37 officers. The list includes officers from almost every corner of the state, but unlike in previous stories, this time, The Paper. can’t say what sort of misconduct those officers have been accused of committing. That’s because the LEA, under Baker’s leadership, has failed to provide the records despite being well past the deadline to do so under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

On April 11, The Paper. submitted a public records request to obtain information (board packets) sent to LEAB members for the April 14 board meeting. This is a standard packet of information that details the misconduct cases the LEAB adjudicates and includes the original misconduct complaint submitted to the Law Enforcement Academy (LEA) as well as a synopsis of the case written by the LEA director, and any settlement agreement that an officer may have signed.

Do Records Even Matter?

These records are vital for our policing reporting, as they are the only clear and accurate representation of the cases the LEAB reviews. Previous LEAB meeting informational packets obtained by The Paper. resulted in two recent stories: Who Has the Authority to Stop Dangerous Cops? and Police Chief Says Misconduct ‘Completely Ignored’ by Law Enforcement Board. Both stories detailed misconduct allegations against officers, and their outcome.

Some of those records also detailed the allegations against Chaves County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Ricardo Delgado, who was accused of excessive force by his former employer, Roswell Police Department. Delgado and the LEA were later named in a lawsuit filed by the family of Oscar Najeera, whom Delgado and another CCSO deputy shot to death in July 2021.

All this to say, access to these public records is vital to The Paper’s reporting regarding police oversight. It has been more than three weeks since the LEAB packet was requested, and still, the Department of Public Safety has not provided it.

Is the Leadership Change to Blame?

According to a DPS records clerk, the records were received and redacted by their department on May 4 (well past the 15-day window for providing records), and were set to be released later that day. Unfortunately, later that day, the records department sent a message stating that the records had been provided to the Attorney General’s office to review prior to release, and their release had not yet been approved. 

This marks the first time that The Paper. has received any such response from the DPS records department.

More than the reports to the LEAB seems to have changed at the LEA following previous director Alzaharna’s departure, since on January 31, 2022, The Paper. requested the same board packets for all meetings from January 2019 to December 2021. The records from years of previous meetings were received just 14 days later, within the timeframe as required by the Inspection of Public Records Act.

Now, however, with Baker acting as interim director, it has been over 24 days, and still The Paper. has not received the solitary board packet requested.

Not I, said the Attorney General

Jerri Mares, Director of Communications & Legislative Affairs for the Attorney General’s Office, said it’s important to make a distinction between the open government division of their office and the office itself.

“First off, it’s not the Office of the Attorney General, in essence, it’s the general counsel, which is our office staff,” Mares said. “Because our open government division is board counsel to numerous boards and commissions, so we have reached out to DPS regarding the response, but in essence, it’s a general counsel that they’ve asked to look at the [public records].”

She said she didn’t know whether or not the previous request was reviewed by the general counsel for the LEAB, and the attorney filling that role has changed positions since the January request. 

“I’m still waiting for confirmation that they [LEAB] has one of the packets and that he’s reviewing but it isn’t necessary that the Attorney General’s Office review anything,” Mares said.

She did later confirm that the LEAB general counsel had received and was reviewing the packet. Still, she couldn’t say whether or not this type of review took place prior to Baker’s assumption of command at the LEA.

“That’s something that you would have to ask the LEA Director,” Mares said, regarding the apparently new procedure.

No Response from the Academy

Interim LEA director Baker didn’t respond to requests from The Paper. for more information, and the response from DPS Spokesperson Herman Lovato was brief and failed to address any details regarding the records.

“The Law Enforcement Academy Board (LEAB) counsel, an employee of the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, review all board records prior to release,” Lovato wrote. “This practice was implemented about 20 years ago.”

Lovato did not respond to requests for more information or evidence of the practice previously, and DPS’s public records policy doesn’t say anything about the need for general counsel to review LEAB records releases.

For now, the public will have to wait, along with The Paper., to learn what misconduct more than three dozen officers stood accused of and the April 14 LEAB meeting, and to understand the outcome of those cases.