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Editorial: Why the secrecy?

Bernalillo County Sheriff's deputies respond at the scene of the fatal shooting of Elish Lucero on July 22.

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies respond at the scene of the fatal shooting of Elish Lucero on July 22.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales is either determined to cover up the actions of his department in the tragic shooting death of Elisha Lucero as long as he possibly can – or maybe he’s just a really slow learner.

Elisha Lucero

Elisha Lucero

Lucero, a 28-year-old woman suffering from mental illness, was shot multiple times by BCSO deputies who responded to the family residence after family members called for help after she allegedly hit someone.

Lucero, who stood 4 foot 11 inches, was armed with a kitchen knife and ran toward three deputies, screaming at them.

It’s hard to conceive of a scenario in which a hail of bullets was the only recourse available to law enforcement. Lucero’s family – quite understandably – felt they were owed more of an explanation. So they asked for contemporaneous BCSO records of what went down.

That’s where our sheriff came in – or, more to the point, didn’t.

Lucero’s sister, Elaine Maestas, said in a court filing that BCSO has provided “no information at all, withholding without any legal basis police reports, digital audio recordings and even CADs (computer-aided dispatch reports).”

The basis for the blanket withholding is a claimed “ongoing investigation” that has no identified end date.

A judge has ordered the county to produce the records as required under the state Inspection of Public Records Act or provide an explanation. A hearing is set for Jan. 15.

A BCSO spokeswoman would only say the department “is committed to the safety of our children, families and businesses, however it would be inappropriate to comment on pending litigation.”

Or more likely committed to preventing a flood of bad publicity involving a tragic and highly questionable shooting.

The attorney for Maestas, Adam Flores, correctly pointed out there is no sweeping exception under IPRA allowing police agencies to deny a request because an investigation is ongoing. Again correctly, he said confidential information within a law enforcement record should be redacted and the record turned over.

“We haven’t even identified who all was at the scene, or who all was involved. We don’t know which witnesses were out there,” Flores said. “We haven’t even seen a single police report, so the public knows nothing about this shooting at all. … They totally control all of the information.”

Which appears to be just fine with Gonzales, who also has successfully resisted all attempts to have his deputies use lapel cameras, thereby preventing BCSO from joining the ranks of modern and accountable police forces.

And as for the slow learner part of this?

The Court of Appeals recently held that law enforcement has a duty to review, separate and redact instead of withholding all records.

That case is now before the state Supreme Court, and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government points out that allowing a blanket exception to IPRA “places control over critical public information entirely in the hands of the law enforcement entity that seeks to avoid accountability at the precise moment when public interest in disclosure is highest.”

And it notes that this “total secrecy is particularly harmful in the context of killings by police.”

Meanwhile, a district judge in Santa Fe last month ordered the state Department of Public Safety to pay $28,000 plus attorney fees in an IPRA case brought by the family of a man shot and killed by Farmington police.

Judge Bryan Biedscheid also found the department deprived the family of the records even as it skewed and editorialized information it did release to favor of the police.

DPS – are you listening, sheriff? – issued a statement after the judge’s decision saying that it was “implementing new policies to review and release all non-confidential information to ensure the public can fully exercise its right to know.”

That’s as it should be and BCSO should do the same – both for the sake of Lucero’s family, and for the rest of Bernalillo County residents whose trust the sheriff’s office should be trying to earn and keep.

It’s really not that complicated.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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