NM lawmakers tackle civil rights protections and police accountability

After a year in which police use of lethal force against Black people awakened large swaths of the American public to a discussion about systemic racism, lawmakers in New Mexico are looking to reform policing and better protect civil liberties. 

The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked mass marches across the country, including in New Mexico, to protest the unequal and dangerous treatment Black people encounter in interactions with police. 

New Mexico is no stranger to calls for greater scrutiny of law enforcement. 

The U.S. Department of Justice forced the state’s largest law enforcement agency into a consent decree after concluding in 2014 the Albuquerque Police Department exhibited a troubling pattern of excessive force, including one of the highest rates in fatal shootings by its police officers. The killings haven’t been limited to APD, either. Between Floyd’s death this Memorial Day and the end of November, there were 11 fatal police-involved shootings across New Mexico, according to local news reports and a database of deadly police shootings maintained by the Washington Post. 

Since 2015, when the Post began compiling data, New Mexico has recorded 115 law-enforcement shootings, New Mexico trails only Alaska for the highest rate of fatal police shootings in that time – 55 per one million residents. Soon after Floyd’s death, the state Legislature passed House Bill 5 that created a temporary New Mexico Civil Rights Commission to investigate and recommend ways to hold public officials to greater account, with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signing the legislation June 26. Nearly four months later, on Oct.

‘If the Police Aren’t Needed, Let’s Leave Them Out Completely’

Protesters of the police killing of George Floyd organized a protest caravan in Albuquerque, NM, May 28. Credit: Shaun Griswold

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Lawmaker proposes statewide standards for police use of force reviews

A New Mexico state senator wants prosecutors to decide much more quickly whether a police use of force is criminal — and to show the public their work as they go. And state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, wants the attorney general to oversee the whole process, bringing uniformity to a patchwork system of legal reviews that has left victims of police violence and their families frustrated and angry over a lack of clarity, accountability and swiftness. Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez

She plans to introduce a bill — co-sponsored by three other Albuquerque Democrats, Jerry Ortiz y Pino, Gail Chasey and Patricia Roybal Caballero — for consideration at what’s expected to be a short, whirlwind legislative session that begins Thursday to address “a real blind spot in the police reform discussion we are all having now.”

In addition to Sedillo Lopez’s bill, slightly different versions of which have failed during previous sessions, lawmakers are expected to push several other proposed changes to how officers operate in New Mexico as street protests and impassioned calls for reform have swept the nation following the deaths of several black people at the hands of police. Among them: A requirement that all officers and deputies in the state wear body cameras, a ban on chokeholds and a clearer path for people to sue officers in civil court. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Sedillo Lopez’s proposal would force all New Mexico jurisdictions to review “police actions that result in death or great bodily harm” the same way, she said.

One in nearly four-thousand: NM prison COVID-19 testing shows strikingly low positive rate

New Mexico appears to have bucked another national trend. Just one of the nearly 4,000 inmates and staff tested in the state’s 11 prisons is positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to results released by the state Corrections Department on Friday. The lone positive result, according to a news release from department spokesman Eric Harrison, was for a correctional officer at the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, near the U.S. border with Mexico. The officer is now in self-quarantine at home, Harrison’s release said. Across the nation, prisons and jails have emerged as hotspots for COVID-19, with incarcerated populations and those who work to supervise them testing positive at alarmingly high rates in some places. 

Many inmates suffer from pre-existing health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the often fatal consequences of COVID-19, leaving prisons with some of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. as the pandemic continues its march.

Lujan Grisham administration says it will conduct wide-scale COVID-19 testing in NM prisons

New Mexico officials on Tuesday rolled out an ambitious plan to test for the new coronavirus in the state’s prisons. At a virtual news conference led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state Health Department Secretary Kathy Kunkel said all prison guards and staff — more than 1,800 people — would be tested by May 13. Officials plan to test 25% of the state’s 6,500-plus inmates by then as well, Kunkel said. Additionally, all newly arriving inmates will be tested and quarantined for 14 days, she said. The announcement marks a sharp turn for Lujan Grisham’s administration.