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County dragged its feet in Taser case

An image from a lapel camera video shows a special needs student at Española Valley High School being held down after a deputy shocked him with a Taser. (Source: YouTube)

The leaders of Rio Arriba County government were maybe the last to figure out that a sheriff’s deputy shouldn’t use a Taser on a 15-year-old special needs student after starting a fight with the kid.

Ex-deputy Jeremy Barnes, 34, was only let go by the county, finally and completely, after the state Attorney General’s Office filed criminal charges against him over Barnes’s tasing of the student on May 10 at Española Valley High School.

Sheriff James Lujan reportedly finally dumped Barnes as a deputy during a meeting on Friday, Sept. 20.

But during that meeting, according to the Rio Arriba County attorney, Barnes asked to be transferred to the county Public Works Department. Lujan forwarded the deputy’s written request to County Manager Tomas Campos.

Campos denied the transfer last Tuesday, ending his county employment. The criminal charges for the tasing incident had been filed the previous day. Barnes now faces felony counts of child abuse and false imprisonment, as well as misdemeanor counts of aggravated battery and violating the Governmental Conduct Act.

County government previously had no problem keeping Barnes on, despite a video recorded on Barnes’ own lapel camera and made public by the Rio Grande Sun newspaper, of the deputy’s take-down of the special needs student.

The video shows Barnes walking into a school office, where a security guard tells him that the 15-year-old student hit her with a backpack and says the boy has been “resisting.” Barnes says he’ll “put his little ass in handcuffs” and take him to a juvenile lockup in Santa Fe.

The boy does not resist as he turns around so Barnes can handcuff him, but the boy does wave a hand – not toward the deputy – and calls Barnes a homophobic slur. That was enough for Barnes to respond by initiating a scuffle and taking the teen down with the help of a male security guard. “I’m going to (expletive) tase you,” Barnes says.

With a school security guard egging him on, Barnes discharges his Taser into the boy, causing him to drop to the floor and scream in pain. The teen pleads for Barnes to stop. Later, Barnes tells the boy, “Pain compliance is not going to kill you.”

The county stood by Barnes. For at least an extended period after the May 10 incident, Barnes remained on patrol with all his weapons.

As of late June, Sheriff James Lujan was saying that Barnes, whose law enforcement certification was inactive over his failure to disclose an arrest for reckless driving in an application to the state Law Enforcement Academy, had until October, a year after he was hired as a Rio Arriba deputy, to get his certification.

Barnes had been fired or forced to resign from a couple of previous law enforcement jobs in New Mexico, including one with the police in Grants. In a lawsuit there, a former girlfriend said he’d chased her and her son around with a Taser and would “fire it off and make it crackle to scare them.”

After the tasing video became public, the Española School Board issued a statement condemning Barnes’ Taser use, saying, “It is important for a law enforcement officer to understand that the officer is operating in a school setting, not out on the street, and that students will have bad days or special needs.”

One might make an argument that Attorney General Hector Balderas needed to charge Barnes with crimes as a last resort, since the county appeared to be fine with its deputy’s playground-style attitude displayed in the video and his brawling enhanced with Taser blasts.

Press release comments from elected officials typically should be regarded with a substantial dose of cynicism. But Balderas’ statement on the tasing case released Wednesday stands as a good summation of this situation.

“School should be a place where students feel safe and where law enforcement officials act to protect, not harm, students,” he said. “No individual is above the law … .”