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Saturday, February 1, 2003

Bill Seeks Better Police Training on High-Speed Chases

By David Miles
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE A bill to require better training and policy measures relating to high-speed police chases on Friday won the endorsement of a House committee.
    The bill, which would also toughen criminal penalties for fleeing a law enforcement officer, won the unanimous endorsement of the House Judiciary Committee. It now goes to the full House for consideration.
    The legislation would require law enforcement officers to undergo at least 16 hours of training in high-speed pursuits.
    Rep. John Heaton, a Carlsbad Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the required training would lead to safer driving by police officers.
    "I think that better decisions will be made about pursuit," Heaton said in an interview.
    Heaton said the high-profile deaths of Lloyd Aragon and Manoa Jojola prompted him to pursue legislation in recent years.
    Aragon, a State Police officer, was killed in Grants in 2001 after being struck by a truck fleeing police.
    Jojola, a student at Albuquerque Academy, died in 2000 after a car being chased by police broadsided his pickup at the intersection of Pan American Freeway and San Mateo NE in Albuquerque.
    Heaton said he recently discussed his bill with Jojola's mother. "She was very excited that this was being introduced," he said.
    Assistant State Police Chief Forrest Smith said the measure would foster uniformity of high-speed pursuit procedures among New Mexico's law enforcement agencies.
    The bill, which would take effect July 1, would require each New Mexico law enforcement agency to develop a high-speed pursuit policy.
    Each policy would require police officers to consider a variety of factors before initiating such a chase, including whether the danger posed by the suspect exceeds the danger the pursuit represents to the officer and the public.
    Smith applauded a provision to make the "aggravated fleeing" from a law enforcement officer a fourth-degree felony. Aggravated fleeing would involve endangering another person's life with a vehicle after a law enforcement officer signalled the offender to stop.
    Evading or eluding an officer is currently a misdemeanor.
    "I think it will definitely make it safer for officers and citizens alike," Smith said of the bill.