Lawmaker proposes statewide standards for police use of force reviews

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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.

Now, prosecutors from district to district use a variety of schemes — from appointing special prosecutors to in-house reviews to so-called “panels” of outside DAs — to examine the cases. Lengthy delays and secrecy have been hallmarks for years, as SFR and New Mexico In Depth have found in several investigations.

Sedillo Lopez’s proposal highlights timeliness first. After a serious use of force, police chiefs and sheriffs would be required to notify their local DA of the circumstances within 24 hours. The prosecutor, in turn, would be required to notify the governor’s office and the attorney general within 24 hours of receiving the notice.

At each step of the process, all records produced would be public, Sedillo Lopez said.

“It’s incredibly important that people be able to see how these investigations and reviews are conducted,” she said.

From there, the DA has three days to decide whether to oversee the legal review, appoint a special prosecutor or hand the case off to the attorney general. The bill, Sedillo Lopez said, would give the attorney general “concurrent jurisdiction” for any serious use of force in the state, meaning AG Hector Balderas would have the authority to step in.

In a telephone interview, Balderas said he supports the bill and worked with Sedillo Lopez to craft it.

“The system is far too slow as it is now, and the public doesn’t trust that these cases are treated the same as any other instance where someone is seriously injured or killed,” he said.

A spokesman for Lujan Grisham said in an email that the governor may not be eager to tackle the huge shift proposed in Sedillo Lopez’s bill.

“Larger reforms certainly merit a debate and process that is not as inherently quick and budget-focused as this special session will be,” the spokesman wrote.

Prosecutors who choose not to pursue charges against officers in use of force cases would be required to issue a detailed report explaining the decision under the proposal, citing evidence and legal standards.

The prosecutorial review issue snapped into focus for Sedillo Lopez when Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies fired more than 20 bullets into Elisha Lucero, a woman who was living with mental illness, after her family called for help in July 2019. 

The county paid out $4 million in March to settle a civil lawsuit filed by Lucero’s family, but the case remains in limbo on the criminal side.

“It’s been a year, and still no one knows if any action will be taken,” Sedillo Lopez said. “There’s been no transparency, no public explanation for what happened. That is absolutely not acceptable, and that’s what I am trying to accomplish with this bill, to build in some timeliness, some accountability, some transparency.”

This story was published in partnership with the Santa Fe Reporter.

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