SANTA FE – A years-old debate over use of force by police could resurface in the coming 30-day legislative session, as Gov. Susana Martinez plans to push legislation that would grant legal immunity to New Mexico law enforcement officers for actions in the line of duty.
The Republican governor, a former prosecutor, says the legislation would provide a shield of sorts for law enforcement officers – provided they’re adhering to training – in a state that has one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates.
“I don’t believe that police officers should be under this constant threat of lawsuits that will often cause them to pause,” Martinez recently told the Journal. “If they’re following their training, there should be something that protects them.”
However, critics describe the legislation as misguided and possibly unconstitutional, while citing a recent federal investigation that found Albuquerque police had a pattern of excessive force. That led to a settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Standing up for officers who are using excessive force and violating the Constitution is exactly the wrong way to move,” said Steven Robert Allen, the public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico. “I don’t know what problem the governor thinks she’s addressing, but she seems to be going in the wrong direction.”
In recent years, numerous lawsuits have been filed against New Mexico law enforcement officers, and some of the suits have led to hefty settlement agreements.
In 2014, a judge awarded more than $6 million to the family of Christopher Torres, a mentally ill 27-year old man who was shot in his own backyard when police officers tried to confront him over a road rage incident.
Stephen Torres, his father, said Tuesday that he would oppose the legislation.
“We all should be a little paranoid about doing the right thing,” he said in an interview. “If a police officer does something wrong, he should be held accountable just like the rest of us.”
However, Martinez, who is entering her final regular session of the Legislature as governor, suggested that legislation granting legal immunity to law enforcement officers would protect not just the officers but taxpayers, too.
“This bill would protect citizens and law enforcement officers from the massive payouts that taxpayers are giving crooks and thieves who are hurt or injured by police officers who are doing their job,” Martinez said.
Without citing a specific case, she said such a law could apply when a police officer chases a suspect who ignores orders to stop and tackles the suspect.
Several recent lawsuits filed against law enforcement officers have in fact stemmed from non-deadly encounters.
For instance, a University of New Mexico student filed a lawsuit last year in which he claimed he was knocked down and injured after walking down a “skirmish line” of police officers who were in riot gear with an extended middle finger. The incident occurred at a protest against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and the lawsuit is still pending.
In another case, a murder suspect filed a 2016 lawsuit alleging Albuquerque police injured his wrist while handcuffing his “brittle arms.”
Meanwhile, the governor said the immunity bill, which had not yet been filed as of Tuesday, would not shield officers who intentionally disregard internal law enforcement policies and training.
Martinez has clashed in past legislative sessions with top-ranking Democratic lawmakers over proposals to increase criminal penalties, and the immunity legislation could face an uphill climb in the 30-day session, in part because short sessions held in even-numbered years are typically focused on budgetary matters.
The session officially begins Tuesday.