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Hundreds gather for memorial for fallen officer

Hundreds of concerned residents gathered again in memory of a Rio Rancho police officer shot and killed more than a month ago, but this time police and city officials laid out their concerns about gaps in the state’s criminal justice system and career criminals being released from prison.

Rio Rancho Police Chief Michael Geier told the crowd of police officers, supporters and other community members at the Rio Rancho Veterans Memorial Park that, while it’s important to consider how the justice system directly or indirectly allowed suspect Andrew Romero to allegedly shoot and kill officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner, more important is a “proactive” approach to keeping officers and the public safe.

RRPD Chief Michael Geier addresses hundreds of people gathered Sunday in honor of slain Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner.

RRPD Chief Michael Geier addresses hundreds of people gathered Sunday in honor of slain Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner.

“We are fed up. We will not give up until the criminals live in fear, not the good citizens like yourselves,” Geier told the crowd.

The Sunday afternoon event was organized by community residents, including a number of wives of police officers, and featured speakers including Mayor Gregg Hull, Pastor Jeff Carr of West Mesa Baptist Church, and Julie Benner, the slain officer’s wife.

Julie Benner recently joined a state Attorney General task force, formed after her husband’s death, that aims to identify problems in New Mexico’s criminal justice system.

“I will fight on until I get justice for my husband and for the whole community,” Benner said after receiving 30 seconds of unbroken applause from the audience. “So if you see my face everywhere, it’s because I’m not quitting. I am going to get the justice system changed.”

When police say 28-year-old Andrew Romero shot officer Benner during a traffic stop on Memorial Day, Romero was wanted for a string of armed robberies and violating probation.

Months earlier, he had been sentenced to drug treatment for charges that could have seen him sentenced up to four years in prison.

Event visitors had a chance to express their condolences and gratitude in writing on large paper sheets.

Many of the notes thanked Benner for his service, offered prayers for his wife and expressed regret at the officer’s fate.

Kim and Victor Ray Candelaria leave messages at a gathering in honor of slain officer Gregg "Nigel" Benner.

Kim and Victor Ray Candelaria leave messages at a gathering in honor of slain officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner.

One writer wrote that, unlike Romero, officer Benner “didn’t get a second chance.”

Organizer Paul Caputo said the event was intended to memorialize the officer and said that, in the distant future, the paper sheets could be displayed to remind public officials of the public’s support for police officers and the work they do. He stressed, however, that the event wasn’t intended to be political in nature.

Pastor Jeff Carr asked attendees to bow their heads in prayer to honor police officers who deal with dangerous situations on a daily basis.

“I think we all understand the law in New Mexico must change,” he said. “We can’t continue to let bad people roam the streets.”

He then prayed that the state would get political leaders with the same courage as officers and first responders who “will not rest until laws are in place” that address the issues.

Albuquerque Police Department Chief Gorden Eden was in attendance, as were several Rio Rancho city councilors and police officers from several departments statewide.

Joe Harris Jr., a recent state police academy graduate and son of Joe Harris Sr., who was killed while on duty with the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office in 2009, also attended.

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