A political ploy, a show of support and impractical.
Those were just some of the reactions Wednesday to an announcement from Gov. Susana Martinez that she planned to push for legislation that would give police officers legal immunity for their actions in the line of duty, as long as they follow their training.
People ranging from local civil rights attorneys to former NFL wide receiver Donté Stallworth took to social media to criticize and question the proposal.
The legislation would hit close to home in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, where there are several pending lawsuits against police officers and sheriff’s deputies. In the past decade, Albuquerque has settled cases and been hit with judgments that have totaled tens of millions of dollars for police shootings, and in one case two officers were charged with second-degree murder for an on-duty shooting that eventually ended in a mistrial.
Mayor Tim Keller declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the proposed legislation.
The governor’s proposed bill hasn’t been introduced but Martinez recently described her plans to the Journal.
There are, however, better ways to give officers more protection from lawsuits than by simply making them immune as long as they followed training, according to attorney Luis Robles, who is often hired to defend officers in lawsuits and defended one of the Albuquerque officers in the death of James Boyd.
“You can’t be trained to use force unconstitutionally and then get a pass because you did what your bad training taught you to do. … You can’t pass legislation lower than the bar by which officers have to act,” he said. “I understand what (the governor) wants and I can sort of support her goal. I can’t support the way she’s going about it, because it’s not going to work.”
Albuquerque attorney Randi McGinn called the legislation an attempt to score political points. She said police officers already have qualified immunity in federal court and damages are capped in state court. And if there is a judgment against an officer in state court, the municipalities, not police officers, would have to pay, she said.
“‘I’m gonna show that I’m behind the cops and … we’re going to take a hard line.’ It’s political stuff,” McGinn said of the governor’s proposal. “It’s just trying to score political points, it’s not really doing anything.”
McGinn throughout her career has litigated high-profile lawsuits brought against police, and she also was the special prosecutor in the Boyd case.
“Why did I prosecute (the Boyd) case? Because I care about the law and the fact that police follow the law in New Mexico. If that doesn’t exist then we have a third-world country where the people charged with enforcing the law don’t have to follow it,” she said. “You have to have some regulator on the people you give that much power to.”
Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque police union, said he supported the governor’s concept.
He said being named in lawsuits can be used against officers as they try to get promotions. He also said being named in a high-profile lawsuit can deter people from joining a police agency because the negative attention could follow them even if they switched careers.
“We need to have these conversations,” he said. “This is a good strong message to New Mexico law enforcement that they are supported.”