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State leaders gather for first crime review meeting held

More than two dozen statewide leaders gathered in Albuquerque on Wednesday for the first of a few sessions that aim to solve some of the state’s justice system problems.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas convened the Violent Crime Review Team in response to the shooting death of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner in late May. The team will delve deep into how Benner’s alleged killer, Andrew Steven Romero, was out on the streets, and able to shoot and kill the officer.

“This is not going to be an easy process, but it’s absolutely critical for our public safety,” Balderas said in opening remarks in a meeting room at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

The team then will broaden its scope to look at system-wide issues, from education to policing to prosecuting, and identify “gaps” in the way suspects, defendants and criminals move through the system and are held accountable.

The task force will meet seven more times before the end of the year in hopes of making a series of recommendations about fixing the justice system across various agencies. The meeting room was packed from end to end with leaders of numerous state agencies, including law enforcement from around the state, but also Albuquerque Public Schools, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the state Public Education Department, and the Children, Youth and Families Department.

Balderas said the justice system will work smoothly only with cooperation among agencies that not only deal directly with issues around crime and punishment, but also with those that address poverty, education and child welfare.

In attendance Tuesday were 2nd Judicial District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden, State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull, Public Education Department Secretary Hanna Skandera, Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel and many others.

They will work to find the ways in which the criminal justice system failed and allowed Romero to be on the streets and on the run for months from court-mandated drug treatment when he allegedly shot Benner. From there, they’ll work to come up with solutions and, finally, ask “community heroes” like Benner’s wife, Julie, to advocate for changes to criminal justice practices statewide. That final stage is expected to begin in January.