Possible excessive force sparks investigations at county jail

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The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center Jeff Proctor/NMID

The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center Jeff Proctor/NMID

The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center Jeff Proctor/NMID

Allegations of excessive use of force in two separate instances at Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center have sparked internal and criminal investigations, New Mexico In Depth has learned.

According to multiple sources, the county has hired an outside firm to review both incidents for possible policy violations by guards. In one, guards pepper sprayed and shocked a female inmate with an electronic stun gun in September 2015. In the other, the firm is reviewing if guards went too far when they took a male inmate to the ground in late April, possibly knocking him unconscious.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office launched criminal investigations of both incidents, a spokeswoman for that agency said. Investigators found no criminal wrongdoing in the case of the male inmate. The criminal probe in the other case is ongoing.

Both incidents were captured on video. Neither has been publicly reported.

County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who viewed the video of the incident involving the female inmate, described it as “troubling” in an interview with NMID.

For years excessive force issues and instances of guards raping inmates have dogged the MDC, one of the 40 largest county jails in the country. Some of those problems have diminished as county officials have eased chronic overcrowding at the massive lockup on Albuquerque’s far west mesa.

But the new allegations threaten to thrust the MDC back into the mix as a national debate rages over the treatment of inmates in county and city jails. The vast majority of people incarcerated in such detention centers are awaiting trial and have not been convicted.

On Tuesday, County Attorney Ken Martinez through a records custodian agreed to provide the videos of the separate incidents to NMID in response to a public records request. The cost: $121, including $100 for two compact discs onto which the videos had been copied.

On Wednesday, however, Martinez refused to turn over the videos or reports related to the incidents.

Martinez cited ongoing investigations into the incidents as the reason to withhold the records —  an exception to the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) that does not exist.

Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the county appears to be violating the state’s public records act by refusing to release the records and with the fees the county wants to charge for the videos.

NMID learned details of the incidents through multiple sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incidents publicly.

According to the sources, county officials have hired an outside firm to conduct administrative investigations into each incident to determine whether MDC guards violated policies.

It is unclear when the criminal or administrative investigations began. County spokeswoman Tia Bland refused to comment on the incidents or to make Martinez or County Manager Julie Morgas-Baca available for an interview.

Deputy Felicia Romero, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, would not comment on the criminal investigations.

In the first incident, MDC guards used pepper spray, a Taser and other force on a female inmate who was being held in one of the jail’s solitary confinement units, according to the sources who spoke with NMID. A lieutenant, a sergeant and three corrections officers were involved.

One of the employees is on paid leave as the administrative investigation into the incident with the female inmate and other, unrelated matters, progresses, the sources said. None of the others was on leave as of Thursday afternoon.

Commissioner Wayne Johnson in an interview confirmed parts of the accounts offered by the sources, specifically that the guards used pepper spray on the woman.

“Is it troubling for somebody to watch this? Yes, it certainly is,” Johnson said. “It’s always troubling to see someone being restrained and pepper sprayed in that manner. That said, I am not an expert in this, so I don’t want to characterize or make any judgments. It should definitely be reviewed administratively, and I think the county would like to see a criminal investigation.”

Johnson said he also was concerned that commissioners and the county’s legal department were not made aware of the incidents until last week — after NMID requested the videos and reports.

“One of these things happened more than nine months ago, and we are just finding out about it,” he said. “That’s as troubling to me as anything else … The flow of information from the jail has been a constant struggle.”

Each of the other four commissioners was given an opportunity to review the videos as well, the sources said. None of them accepted.

In the second incident, which took place on April 25, a male inmate was taken to the ground by MDC guards and may have been knocked unconscious, the sources said. In that case, a sergeant and four or five corrections officers were involved. None of them has been placed on leave, according to the sources.

NMID initially requested the videos and reports through IPRA on June 28.

On Tuesday, the county wrote in a response that the records would be available the following day. The cost: $121.50, which included $.50 each for 43 pages of reports and $50 for each disc containing videos.

Assistant County Attorney Michael Garcia said Wednesday that officials reviewing the request had “hit a snag.” The records would not be released, Garcia said, “because there might be an ongoing investigation.”

Later on Wednesday, the county formally denied NMID’s request and apologized “for informing you prematurely the records were ready for release and pick up.”

“The information you have requested is part of an investigation that is still on-going and therefore cannot be released at this time,” the denial said.

Boe, of the Foundation for Open Government (FOG), blasted the county’s denial of the request, saying the county’s claim that the records could not be released because of an ongoing investigation has no basis in the law.

“There is no ongoing exception to IPRA,” she said. “There is an exception for confidential witnesses, sources and methods, but if you read that exception, it goes on even after an investigation is closed. So, it’s a narrow exception. And in this case, that video tape was not made as part of the investigation. It is clear that these records should be released.”

She also criticized what the county wanted to charge for the records.

“Fifty dollars is totally unacceptable,” she said, adding that a recent review by FOG showed that the going rate among government agencies around the state for discs was $5. “The statute says you can charge the actual cost of the medium used. The burden is on the government to show what that actual cost is, and I think they’d be pretty hard pressed to show it is $50. When you get into that range, I do think it violates the statute.”

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