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A more accountable City Hall would release police internal affairs reports

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber seem to be on good terms. Keller endorsed Webber when Webber won the top post in the City Different in 2018. Both are progressive Democrats.

So, it probably wouldn’t be much of a bother for Webber to give his friend to the south a phone call and ask for a little advice. Somehow, Keller’s Albuquerque administration continues to be able to do things in the public interest that Webber’s Santa Fe government says it can’t legally do. Webber should ask if Keller can tell him how this can be so.

Specifically, Santa Fe city government continues to refuse to release the results of investigations by the police department’s internal affairs unit, which looks into complaints about officers or whether officers followed the SFPD’s use-of-deadly-force policies in police shooting cases.

Meanwhile, Keller’s Albuquerque administration – operating under the same New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) as Santa Fe – does make police internal affairs investigations public.

Just last week, in response to a Journal IPRA request, Albuquerque released an internal affairs report on a high-profile 2020 case in which an APD officer shot and critically wounded a 26-year-old man who was in the midst of a mental health crisis. The IA investigation found the officer’s use of force was appropriate, but that he had also escalated the situation. “Force only became necessary because it was predicated on the lack of command and control of the scene,” an IA commander wrote in the report.

Santa Feans never get to see such professional analysis of how SFPD officers act in similar situations.

In 2017, two Santa Fe officers fired 17 shots at another mentally unstable young man, killing him inside the apartment he’d recently been evicted from. The shots were fired through an opening created when police ripped out a window in the ground-floor apartment as part of a long SWAT standoff. The officer who started the gunfire just seconds after the window was removed later said he mistook a knife in the man’s hand for the same kind of gun that was part of a police training exercise from earlier in the day.

A group of district attorneys called on to assess the case did not find grounds for criminal charges, but the city paid $400,000, the maximum for wrongful death, to settle a lawsuit filed by the dead man’s family.

Did Santa Fe officers follow policy or standard procedure in this fatal incident? Should police have just waited out the young man inside the apartment? Don’t bother to ask City Hall. Someone there will say a legal exception to the state open records law bars public release of IA reports and disciplinary actions against officers because such information constitutes mere “matters of opinion” about personnel matters.

But that’s not how Albuquerque interprets the same public records law. It has released large portions of IA reports – minus interview transcripts – using IPRA as its standard. Albuquerque also made public the discipline meted out to the officer in last year’s shooting of the mentally ill man – an eight-hour suspension.

In Santa Fe, the weekly Santa Fe Reporter has engaged in a long legal battle over whether City Hall can withhold information about whether officers have been disciplined. A district judge’s ruling in the case had something for both sides, but hasn’t pried open IA reports. The case is now before the state Court of Appeals.

Webber just needs to call Keller, or have Santa Fe’s lawyers call Albuquerque’s. IPRA is like any other law – it can be interpreted in various ways. For some reason, Santa Fe has decided to use its interpretation to stonewall public access to IA investigations in its police department.

Santa Fe’s legal team always says the city might get sued if it releases police disciplinary or IA information. And the Reporter’s case in fact shows how difficult it is to crack open some records, particularly when it comes to court precedent on public access to personnel matters involving public employees.

But Santa Fe has put its fear of litigation over releasing public records over the public’s right to know. No legal authority has come down on Albuquerque for releasing its IA reports. There has been no massive payout to a police officer who was the subject of an Albuquerque IA report that was made public. That should be plenty of legal precedent for Santa Fe to go ahead and do the same.

In the wake of last year’s national uproar over policing that erupted after a man was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, Webber established the Community Health and Safety Task Force to look into policing and other issues in Santa Fe.

As we’ve said before, police reform is a difficult issue. Police must have the tools, support and respect they need to fight crime and keep communities as safe as possible, while any bias, brutality or ineptitude should be rooted out.

But transparency should be the easy part of police reform. It requires no balancing act between civil rights and police authority or arguments over police use of military gear, nor debates over bringing the values of the community and the police together, or whether money needs to be diverted from law enforcement into mental health programs.

This should be an issue in the November municipal elections. All candidates for mayor and City Council should be asked if they support, or would push for, the release of police IA reports.

Santa Fe leaders, if they’re really just afraid of being sued, also could urge legislators to amend and clarify IPRA to specify that these types of documents should be open to the public.

Come on – just let the public know what’s going on within the police department. Release the IA reports.

Police reform without transparency – and the accountability that comes with it – is a non-starter.





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