SANTA FE – Proposals to change New Mexico’s laws for police officers appear to be gathering momentum in the run-up to next week’s special session, though some Republican legislators say the timing is not right for such measures to be debated.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, has been among several lawmakers to call for a state law that would end qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine in federal law that protects law enforcement officers from being held personally liable in most cases.
The proposed law would allow civil lawsuits to be filed against law enforcement officers who violate agency use-of-force protocols.
“I think it’s time for that to change,” Egolf said during a meeting with Journal editors and reporters this week.
“We need to have ways to hold law enforcement officers who don’t follow the rules accountable,” he added.
With race-related protests erupting around New Mexico and the nation in recent weeks, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not ruled out police-related proposals during the special session, which will focus on adjustments to a $7.6 billion budget bill in response to a steep revenue downturn.
“The governor is open to proposals that address the timely questions of excessive force in policing and of systemic racism and injustice,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Friday.
However, she said a prerequisite for any such proposals is broad support across the Legislature, adding some broad proposals may require more scrutiny.
House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, expressed opposition to the proposals on Friday, saying the special session should be limited to budgetary issues and proposals related to the coronavirus outbreak.
“We shouldn’t be trying to address those issues now,” Montoya said regarding proposed police reforms, adding his caucus will have a limited number of staff analysts to review bills during the special session.
“This is absolutely not the way to vet legislation,” Montoya added.
But the number of possible police reform proposals has increased in recent days, with protesters pushing elected officials to address institutional racism and use-of-force laws after George Floyd, a black man, died while in custody of Minneapolis police officers.
Attorney General Hector Balderas this week urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would require police officers in New Mexico to wear cameras on the job and ban the use of chokeholds during arrests.
And on Friday, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said he has asked the Governor’s Office to add to the special session agenda a bill that would eliminate parts of a 1991 law that gives certain protections to law enforcement officers under internal investigation.
Specifically, Maestas said he would propose scrapping provisions in the law that require officers be told about who’s in charge of investigations into their actions and limit what can go into officers’ personnel files without their knowledge and consent.
In a letter to top Governor’s Office staffers, Maestas called the law archaic and said the language in question “does not belong in a union contract much less in state statute.”
While individual officers cannot be held personally liable due to qualified immunity, there have been numerous lawsuits filed against New Mexico law enforcement agencies in recent years, 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.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said Friday in a meeting with Journal editors and reporters that lawmakers had not directly approached his administration with police-related proposals.
He said he has not seen any legislation and was not sure how it might impact Albuquerque, since the city’s police department is already several years into a reform effort triggered by a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found it had a pattern and practice of using excessive force on citizens.
But Keller said he supports having police-related discussions during the special session.
“The timing makes a lot of sense,” he said. “I’m different than a lot of people in that I think if you’re going to have a special session, get as much done as you can.”
The special session is scheduled to begin June 18. It’s unclear how long it will last, though top-ranking legislators have said they hope to wrap up their work in no more than two or three days.
Journal staff writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.