Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
“High rate of speed.”
“Flagrantly reckless driving.”
These reasons were behind the majority of pursuits Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies were involved in throughout 2017 – a year when there were more than six times the number of pursuits than the previous year.
In 2017, deputies were involved in 74 pursuits. In 2016, they were engaged in 11. In 2015, the number was 13.
Sheriff Manuel Gonzales acknowledged the increase and said that it is due to a change in practice and policy by his officers. Citing personal and anecdotal experience with dangerous drivers on the road, as well as a 2014 study from a car insurance comparison group that ranked New Mexico drivers second-worst in the country, Gonzales said the department decided it needed to step in.
“Well, we’re going to take action,” he said in an interview with the Journal. “And that action is doing what the people want us to do – that’s enforcement.”
Prior to last summer, department policy only allowed deputies to pursue suspects in cases involving violent felonies – such as homicide, rape, armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated battery or assault – or when a deputy “has reasonable grounds to believe that the offenders have committed, or are attempting to commit a crime for which the necessity for immediate apprehension outweighs the level of danger created by the pursuit.”
But the policy was changed on July 6, 2017 – a decision supported by Gonzales. One high-level current and one former BCSO official has since testified they disagreed with the change.
Current policy allows deputies to pursue misdemeanor suspects if they believe the person is driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or is “flagrantly reckless” and a danger to others on the road.
The Journal sifted through two years worth of post-pursuit review packets – overflowing from where they were stuffed into a cardboard box – that deputies file after each pursuit and found that the increase came from chasing suspected reckless or drunken drivers.
A handful of cases deputies submitted were determined not to qualify as pursuits – either because they involved Starchase GPS tracking technology or were called off immediately. The majority were initiated after a deputy saw someone running a red light, weaving in and out of traffic or speeding.
Although Sheriff Gonzales attributed the increase in pursuits to the change in policy, a review by the Journal found that the number of pursuits had already increased significantly prior to the new policy – 33 occurred in the first six months of 2017. Many of those involved reckless driving.
Undersheriff Rudy Mora, when asked about the early increase during the interview with Gonzales and other top BCSO officials, responded that the policy change was a clarification meant to empower deputies to tackle crime.
Mora said deputies were saying they felt that there was a lot of confusion and they were not allowed to pursue anyone.
“Go out and do your job and as long as you’re operating within that policy and the Safe Pursuit Act, the sheriff will support you … We wanted to make some changes and make it more clear,” he said.
Mora said the policy change was run through the chain of command, the sheriff, the county legal department and the state law enforcement board to make sure it’s in compliance with New Mexico’s Law Enforcement Safe Pursuit Act.
Gonzales acknowledged that a pursuit is a “high risk event,” but said that doesn’t mean that law enforcement can turn a blind eye to reckless drivers. According to the post-incident review packets, 49 sheriff’s department vehicles were damaged in 2017.
Gonzales did point out that the department had called off 250 pursuits, although the time period was unclear, and that some deputies have been reprimanded or counseled if they were found to violate policy.
One of the most high-profile shootings by Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies in recent years started with a police chase in Southeast Albuquerque.
Around 3:45 a.m. on Nov. 17, 2017, Albuquerque Police Department officers spotted a truck near Lomas and Louisiana NE that had been reported stolen.
Air support followed the truck, and Gonzales has said it was seen “driving periodically with its lights off at a high rate of speed, recklessly through that area of San Mateo and the I-40 corridor.”
He said that when the truck entered the North Valley, deputies began to pursue it, set up spike belts and used a pursuit intervention technique to try to get the driver to stop. Near Hanover and Coors NW, they performed another PIT maneuver and the truck spun out and came to a stop.
That’s where, Gonzales has said, the truck’s driver revved the engine and Deputy Joshua Mora – Undersheriff Mora’s son – fired seven times. The driver, Isaac Padilla, 23, and one of the passengers, Martin Jim, 25, were killed.
Shawntay Ortiz, Jim’s partner and the mother of his 4-year-old son, has filed a lawsuit against the Bernalillo County Commission and the sheriff alleging battery, negligent supervision, hiring and training, as well as loss of consortium and wrongful death. Deputy Mora did not initiate that pursuit. An analysis of the post-incident review packets show he initiated eight others in 2017.
Ortiz’s attorney, Sam Bregman, said in an interview that he worries someone will get hurt because of a pursuit.
So far, no pursuits initiated by BCSO have ended in a traffic fatality on the road but four in 2017 and the beginning of 2018 – including the one involving Jim and Padilla – have ended with shootings.
“The reason people are less safe is there are more pursuits for people that don’t need to be pursued,” Bregman said. “This is a perfect example – in our case there was a helicopter that was following this vehicle. There was no reason, no reason whatsoever, to try to have some kind of major chase throughout the streets and have a confrontation, which ended in shooting a firearm.”
The shooting was one of nine over a 4½-month period last year involving the Sheriff’s Office. Five people were killed, three wounded and two were not hit. It was a noticeable uptick for the BCSO from previous years.
In depositions held May 14 for Ortiz’s lawsuit, former Undersheriff Greg Rees and Sgt. Ryan Tafoya provided sworn testimony saying they had disagreed with the change to the pursuit policy.
“Because it’s hard to manage,” said Rees, who is now the chief of the Metropolitan Detention Center. “When you’re a sergeant and ultimately you are responsible for managing that pursuit, and if you don’t have the mechanisms to control the pursuit, it can get out of hand really quick. … And so there might be a situation where a deputy is going to set up to throw a spike, when there’s another deputy getting ready to do a PIT. And because nobody is talking to each other, it’s a recipe for disaster in my book.”
Review of pursuits
Last March, the Bernalillo County Commission passed a resolution calling for an outside agency to review the Sheriff’s Office policies on vehicle pursuits and use of force.
Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, who sponsored the resolution, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, but she has said at meetings that the review was in response to the community’s concerns over the increase in shootings.
In May, the county signed a six-month contract with the Daigle Law Group, a firm from Connecticut.
Gonzales said he is happy to have the second pair of eyes look over the policies.
By contrast, all of the Albuquerque Police Department policies have already been scrutinized by outside agencies, following the U.S. Department of Justice consent decree in 2014.
APD’s current policy is “to initiate a pursuit only when an officer has reasonable grounds to believe the offender presents a clear and immediate serious threat to the safety of other motorists or the public, which is ongoing before the pursuit beginning, or the offender has committed or is committing a violent felony.”
In 2017, APD officers filed post-incident review packets for 12 pursuits, according to a department spokesman. In 2016, they filed 10 and as of mid-June 2018 they had filed nine.
Paul Haidle, senior policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said he has been pleased with the level of scrutiny all APD policies now go through.
“I think that’s a real model for policy development versus when we look at BCSO the policy development process that they have in place – or even what the policies are in the first place – is nowhere near as transparent as it needs to be,” he said. “I hope that’s something that comes out of this review that the County Commission has authorized.”
Bregman said he had seen a change in the way APD operates in recent years and believes the department’s officers acted appropriately in the case he’s representing.
“They didn’t chase it, they had a helicopter up top,” Bregman said. “The helicopter was following the vehicle and knew exactly where it was the whole time. Once this truck left the confines of the city of Albuquerque and into the county, the cowboys took over.”