New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham killed a bill Friday that would have strengthened Attorney General Raúl Torrez’s authority to protect children’s rights and address racial disparities in how schools discipline children. The AG’s office defends state agencies accused of wrongdoing, but Torrez had wanted a new Civil Rights Division to investigate abuses by state agencies, school districts and other public bodies. Attorneys general in other states pursue civil rights cases, he noted. Both chambers of the Legislature listened, passing the bill in the final week of the legislative session. Days before the deadline for acting on legislation, Lujan Grisham expressed mixed feelings about the legislation, saying prosecutors already have tools to investigate neglect and abuse, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
A school bus takes students home in rural New Mexico. Image: Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth
New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez wants the Legislature to make explicit his power to investigate possible civil rights violations in New Mexico, with a focus first on children, including racial disparities in school discipline and problems at the state’s troubled child welfare department. Torrez cited recent reports of a “pattern of disparate penalties or discipline meted out to various groups, particularly Native American students,” as well as “some very serious issues” at the state Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to explain why he has urged the Legislature to create a civil rights division within the Attorney General’s office.
“We need to get directly involved in protecting the civil rights of our citizens,” Torrez said in a February interview with New Mexico In Depth. “Our first priority will be looking at children.”
New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported in December that Native American students are expelled from New Mexico’s public schools far more frequently than other student groups, in large part due to practices at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools district. Gallup-McKinley, which enrolls more Native students than any other public school district in the country, has expelled children at least 10 times as often as the rest of the state in recent years.
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.