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Governor dismisses Public Safety secretary

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Public Safety Secretary Mark Shea, far right, looks on during a April 2019 news conference while Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham introduces New Mexico State Police Chief Tim Johnson. Shea was dismissed from his job on Friday by the governor, who appointed Johnson to serve as interim secretary of the Department of Public Safety. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Mark Shea

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday abruptly dismissed the top law enforcement official in her Cabinet, signaling a possible shift away from traditional policing tactics amid a national debate over police use-of-force issues.

The first-term Democratic governor did not provide specific reasons for her decision to fire Department of Public Safety Secretary Mark Shea, a move that was effective immediately.

However, the Governor’s Office indicated the leadership change could lead to a greater emphasis on community police work and protecting New Mexicans’ civil rights.

“Those are aspects the governor wants the state’s Department of Public Safety to emphasize and those are priorities of hers as well,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal.

She also said the Governor’s Office does not typically go into details on personnel issues, but pointed out all Cabinet secretaries work at the pleasure of the governor and are exempt from the state’s classified hiring system.

Shea, 66, who was appointed by the governor shortly after she took office in 2019, is a law enforcement veteran with experience at the Albuquerque Public Schools Police Department and the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, among other stops.

He also previously worked in the Department of Public Safety’s critical incident training bureau, where he taught officers about response techniques and dealing with hazardous materials.

With Shea headed for the exits, Lujan Grisham said State Police Chief Tim Johnson would lead the Department of Public Safety as interim secretary, while Deputy State Police Chief Robert Thornton would take over as chief, also on an interim basis.

“The Department of Public Safety plays an essential role,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “Our employees and officers are duty-bound to equitably protect and dutifully serve New Mexicans, and I am confident they will continue to meet and exceed the expectation of communities all across the state.”

Shea, who had been making an annual salary of $156,000 as a cabinet secretary, had not been a highly visible member of Lujan Grisham’s cabinet.

But his agency was in charge of overseeing efforts to combat violent crime, including sending 50 State Police officers to patrol certain areas of Albuquerque last year.

The two-month “Metro Surge Operation” cost about $1 million. It resulted in 14,674 traffic stops and netted 738 arrests – the majority of which were for felony or misdemeanor warrants.

With protests over race-related issues intensifying around New Mexico and the nation this summer, Lujan Grisham said such operations would be viewed through a different lens going forward.

The governor also said it was time for New Mexico to address the “ugly truth” of racism embedded in core institutions, and created a racial justice advisory council to recommend potential changes in state law.

Meanwhile, Shea’s dismissal marks the most recent departure of a Cabinet secretary in the Lujan Grisham administration, nearly two years into the governor’s four-year term.

At least three other Cabinet secretaries have already stepped down this year due to various reasons, and Lujan Grisham last year dismissed Karen Trujillo, her initial pick to lead the Public Education Department, after just six months on the job.

Sackett said the Governor’s Office is not concerned about the turnover, describing it as normal for a governor’s administration.

“Changes happen – that’s a fact of life,” she said. “The vast majorities of those (departures) have been due to family and personal considerations.”

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