A year of tumult over race and policing is coming to a head in New Mexico’s busy legislative session. With just weeks to go before it ends on March 20, lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills aimed at reforming law enforcement and several have progressed through committees. As a share of total introduced legislation, bills related to policing doubled this year over previous sessions, according to data from Legislative Council Service.
But it’s uncertain whether the state, which has one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings in the country, will take significant action. Save a requirement passed in last July’s special session that law enforcement statewide wear body cameras, the Legislature hasn’t enacted any major legislation related to policing in years. According to Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the quantity of proposals this year reflects the urgency of the moment.
Federal agents are coming to Albuquerque, but officials have assured residents that New Mexico’s largest city isn’t the next Portland. In Portland, protests for racial justice have continued nonstop since the killing of George Floyd in late May but had decreased in size, according to the local paper, by the time the Trump administration sent in federal agents early this month, ostensibly to protect federal property and guard public statues. That injection energized the protests, leading to nightly confrontations as throngs of new and old protestors clashed with camo-wearing, unidentified police roaming the streets. The Oregon Attorney General, responding to accounts, has accused federal agents of whisking people away in unmarked vehicles without probable cause in at least two instances, and two federal watchdogs have opened investigations.
Images of tear gassed crowds and burning statues in that Pacific Northwest city have flashed across the country, putting to bed the wisdom of thinking that a show of dominance can be a calming force. But those images are likely one goal of a president seeking re-election on a law-and-order platform. I anticipate more than a few campaign ads over the next three and a half months featuring clashes between federal agents and Portlanders with a man’s voice intoning order against chaos and violence in America’s cities.
Jeffrey Holland ate a late lunch Friday and went home with a minor headache. Jeffrey Holland, one of 19 individuals pardoned by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham / Courtesy of Jeffrey Holland
Just as the Albuquerque native closed his eyes for a short respite amid the chaos of his day, the phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, but answered—because the longtime substance abuse counselor and stubborn believer in overcoming—is always on call. “It was a young lady from the Governor’s Office,” says Holland, a close, personal friend of this reporter. “She said, ‘Hey, I’m calling to let you know that your clemency has been granted by the governor.
As the coronavirus established a foothold in southern New Mexico’s Otero County Prison Facility in mid-May, state officials quietly moved 39 inmates out of the massive complex near the Texas border to another prison near Santa Fe. The inmates shared something in common: None was a sex offender. In the days before the 39 departed the massive correctional complex where New Mexico’s only sex offender treatment program is housed, officials were still transferring sex offenders from other state prisons into Otero. It was a routine practice they had yet to stop, even though more than a dozen COVID-19 cases had already emerged elsewhere in the prison.
Six weeks later, 434 inmates — or 80% — have the virus, within a prison population that’s now entirely composed of people who, at one time or another, were convicted of a state sex offense. Three have died.
Protesters of the police killing of George Floyd organized a protest caravan in Albuquerque, NM, May 28. Credit: Shaun Griswold
This story was published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. New Mexico In Depth is an investigative, nonprofit newsroom that occasionally republishes stories that have particular relevance to New Mexicans. Don’t miss out, sign up to receive our stories soon after they’re published. Every weekday morning, mental health clinician Carleigh Sailon turns on her police radio in downtown Denver and finds out who she can help next.
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.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve watched protests swell in cities across the country and Black Lives Matter attract millions of new supporters to their cause after the killing of George Floyd.U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, has walked with protestors. Confederate monuments are toppling and white childhood friends of mine from Georgia have signaled they want to learn about “systemic” racism. Even NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag.
We’re experiencing a cultural shift, breathtaking in its pace.
As agitation for change sweeps the United States (and the globe), it leaves many of us wondering if today’s marches will lead to deep, substantive changes tomorrow in a centuries-old system that has demonstrated its resilience.
Still, the passion one sees on the streets is hard to ignore. Protestor after protestor in TV, radio and newspaper interviews cite familiar reasons for turning out.
Police brutality. Over-policing in communities of color.
Hundreds of nonviolent New Mexico prison inmates, including people convicted of drug possession, remained behind bars last week, even as COVID-19 killed its first state prisoner and infected one in three inmates at the Otero County Prison Facility near the southern border. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has won national praise for how she’s led New Mexico through the pandemic, is facing questions over why she hasn’t moved more aggressively to ensure more of the state’s 11 prisons don’t become viral hotspots.
Since March, her administration has freed about 50 inmates — less than 1% of the state’s prison population — through an April 6 order that requires her to commute sentences rather than using a law already on the books that would allow hundreds of prisoners to be released early.
The minimal prisoner releases pale next to what some states have done to ease crowding in — and the 30% reduction New Mexico counties have accomplished in the state’s 27 jails. Lujan Grisham’s approach has given some pause, especially given the first-term Democrat’s advocacy for legalizing recreational cannabis and her recent creation of a Council for Racial Justice in response to protests that spilled into New Mexico streets over the killing by police of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis.
About one quarter of those locked up in New Mexico’s prisons are in for nonviolent drug offenses, including many, some long-time criminal justice watchers say, who were prosecuted for possessing marijuana — an offense that would be legal if New Mexico green-lighted recreational cannabis as Lujan Grisham has lobbied. Hispanic and black people are disproportionately incarcerated in New Mexico, as they are nationwide.
State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, believed the pandemic represented a “golden opportunity” for the Lujan Grisham administration to try a different approach besides prison, but he’s “very disappointed,” he said.
“They basically haven’t dented the prison population, and now there is an outbreak which anyone could have predicted,” Ortiz y Pino said. “I have been concerned about why we have these kinds of low-level drug offenders locked up for a long time, and I am even more concerned now.”
Mark Donatelli, a longtime criminal defense and civil rights lawyer based in Santa Fe, wants to know why the governor hasn’t released prisoners using the Community Corrections Act.
This analysis was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity. Before he was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, George Floyd, like millions of African Americans, lost his job because of the coronavirus pandemic. After months of a pandemic that has seen African Americans die at almost double their numbers in the U.S. population and generations of police and white supremacist violence against Black people, a mix of rage and despair is once again burning across the country. Susan Smith Richardson / Courtesy of Center for Public Integrity
The police violence and the impact of the pandemic are two sides of the same coin. “What’s happened with Floyd, and in the history of the U.S., is about whether Black folks can execute power over what their lives are going to look like,” said Jessica Fulton, vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research organization in Washington, D.C., focused on ideas that improve the socioeconomic status of African Americans.
The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center Jeff Proctor/NMID
New Mexico’s 27 adult county jails have slashed their combined population by a third since the new coronavirus began tearing through the state 11 weeks ago, according to data gathered by the New Mexico Association of Counties. On March 13, two days after New Mexico saw its first confirmed COVID-19 cases, counties held nearly 6,000 men and women behind bars; by Wednesday, May 27, around 4,000 sat in jails around the state, the vast majority of them awaiting trial. District attorneys, public defenders and county officials told New Mexico In Depth the rapid population reductions could signal a long-term shift toward locking fewer people up, in a state that historically has had higher rates of incarceration in jails than most others. Some of the largest dips have been in counties hardest hit by the virus, including McKinley (more than a 60% decrease) and San Juan (with a 45% decline). The numbers appear to be ticking back up since the low point on May 1, but Grace Philips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties, calls the overall trend a “significant reduction.”
The sharp decline comes from a joint effort to avoid an outbreak in jails of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus that has infected tens of thousands of inmates and guards nationwide, killing hundreds.
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.