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While the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office asked for public comment on revisions to its use-of-force policies, some members of the public found it difficult to give their input because they couldn’t access the existing policies online.
Several members of the public who submitted comments said they couldn’t find the existing policy on the sheriff’s website and, when they asked for more clarification on the policies, they didn’t receive an answer.
Juan Rios, the Sheriff’s Office media coordinator, said the sheriff’s office is in the process of reviewing the public comments they did receive and letting staff members share their thoughts on the current policy. Rios said new legislation regarding law enforcement – such as the New Mexico Civil Rights Act that passed during this year’s legislative session – will also be taken into account when creating the new policy.
He said Sheriff Adan Mendoza wouldn’t comment on the public’s input at present.
The Journal North reviewed some of the comments the Sheriff’s Office got to get an idea what people are saying.
County resident Steven Mesko, for example, wanted to know more specifics about the sheriff’s office’s policy regarding the use of police dogs and how it relates to the use-of-force policy. He said he finds it concerning that police K-9s are in the same category as batons and blunt objects.
“This implies the dogs are used to attack, disable, maim or even kill in the same way a firearm or other weapons are used,” he commented.
In a phone interview, Mesko said he found the public comment process disappointing. He didn’t hear back from the Sheriff’s Office after submitting his comment. He said the process felt disingenuous and insincere due to the lack of feedback or acknowledgment of his questions.
Rachel Feldman, a task force chairwoman of the politically progressive nonprofit group Indivisible SOS, along with other group members, submitted a packet of recommendations to the sheriff. The recommendations included shifting from a “warrior” to a “guardian” model of policing.
That would shift the focus onto protecting the public, instead of defending officers’ own behavior, the recommendations stated.
Other recommendations from the group included focusing on de-escalation techniques and increased training to decrease confrontations.
“As much attention should be given to training personnel to use these (de-escalation) methods as to the detailing of different uses of force,” they said.
The public input process occurred during the last three weeks of the legislative session. Feldman said she wrote to Mendoza and told him that, with the passage of the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, the best thing to do would to have good policies and training for officers. The act eliminates qualified immunity as a defense for law enforcement agencies.
Feldman also added that taking the use-of-force policy out of the policy manual doesn’t make any sense. The public isn’t able to see the linkage to the rest of the policies, which is something Mesko also had trouble with.
“His policies are not accessible to people, you have to do a (public records) request,” she said. “I think that all Sheriff policies … should be on their websites and available for the public to view, and they’re not.”
Barron Jones, senior policy analyst with the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union, said he would like all sheriff’s offices across the state to take the steps the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office has to address excessive force in the department.
“I think the New Mexico Civil Rights Act will incentivize government agencies not only to produce better policies that lessen incidents of excessive force and abuse by government officials, but also will incentivize these agencies, our government agencies, and public employees to create systems of accountability,” he said.
Jones said Senate Bill 227 introduced in the Legislature this year would have created unified use-of-force standards statewide, including the ban of chokeholds. The bill did not, however, make it through the Legislature.
With the national awareness on chokeholds increasing and the attention being given to the George Floyd case, Jones said he supports a chokehold ban.
Jones said it’s good practice to seek community input when adapting policies. But he said the issue he has with the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Office process was that the public comment period ran during the same time as the legislative session. That meant advocacy groups, such as the ACLU and others, weren’t able to offer input on the policy.
“I do think that it would probably be nice to see that public comment period open back up so more advocacy organizations could sort of weigh in on it,” Jones said.