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Bill would set statewide use-of-force standard

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

In the summer of 2019, 50 New Mexico State Police officers were deployed to patrol certain neighborhoods in Albuquerque, making more than 700 arrests in two months.

The “surge operation” was criticized early on after officers shot at suspects in vehicles in back-to-back incidents – a practice Albuquerque Police Department officers are prohibited from doing except in very specific circumstances.

Leon Howard, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said that if a proposed police reform bill passes, all officers in the state will be held to the same standard regarding when they can use deadly force.

“It creates the same playbook and prioritizes de-escalation for all law enforcement across our state,” Howard said. “The expectation would be the same, no matter which department or state agency you’re dealing with.”

If the bill passes, agencies throughout the state will be required to create comprehensive reports on each shooting, and officers who witness another using excessive force would have to intervene. The bill would change the standard for use of force from “reasonable” to “necessary,” so that officers could not use force unless they had exhausted de-escalation tactics. In addition, it would ban chokeholds, the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and tactics such as no-knock warrants.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said he and his command staff are familiarizing themselves with the legislation and have concerns about the limitations on less-than-lethal force.

“Taking away many valuable tools and less than lethal force options available to our deputies only increases and limits them to the use of deadly force, which is problematic in keeping citizens safe,” Gonzales wrote in a statement. “As always, the office will follow the rule of law regardless of the overreaching politics that continue to chip away at our public safety.”

APD, which spent years developing its use-of-force policies as part of the reform effort with the Department of Justice, should already be in compliance, Howard said.

In a news conference Monday morning, Howard joined Elaine Maestas – a woman whose sister was shot and killed by Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies in 2019 – and Senate Majority Whip Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerquet, who is sponsoring the bill.

All three mentioned that New Mexico is routinely among the states with the highest rate of fatal police shootings. A database kept by The Washington Post has had the state at either No. 1 or No. 2 for the past several years.

“We must implement the transformational changes that are outlined in the bill,” Lopez said. “In doing so, we will not only prevent this tragic epidemic of police killings from continuing, but we will also build public trust and create the foundation for humane, equitable and constitutional policing across our state.”

Paige Fernandez, the policing policy adviser for the ACLU’s National Political Advocacy Department, said although California passed a similar bill in 2019, if this bill passes the Legislature it will be the strongest in the nation.

“The standard we are pushing in New Mexico goes above and beyond the standards that have been pushed elsewhere,” Fernandez said. “It is far more robust and holistic than some of the other bills we’ve seen.”

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