Police accountability database stripped out of crime package

Officers can jump from job to job without being tracked in a central NM database for wrongdoing, one sponsor says

By: - February 21, 2022 6:00 am

Police in Albuquerque in mid-September, 2021. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

When police agencies in New Mexico are hiring, they do not have a central place to find information related to officers who have been convicted of a crime for on-duty conduct, or have civil judgments against them for improper use of force.

That’s what Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) told a Senate panel as lawmakers considered a massive package meant to curb high crime rates.

One provision in the sprawling crime package passed by the Legislature would have fixed that, but it was removed at the 11th hour by Senate Majority Leader Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe).

The proposal would have required the state Department of Public Safety to build a database to track police use of force and misconduct. It would have required law enforcement agencies to submit information and consult with the database when making hiring decisions. If officer misconduct was not submitted, the departments would have lost some funding, too.

The database was intended to keep track of officers who frequently use excessive force, and to make sure they either get more training or are discouraged from continuing to pursue jobs in law enforcement, Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) explained to the Senate Finance Committee.

The database proposal first appeared in a dummy bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsored by Cervantes, Meredith Dixon (D-Albuquerque) and Natalie Figueroa (D-Albuquerque).

“Frankly, we’re looking for officers who had bad history with one department or the other, and trying to keep that database for purposes of future employment,” Cervantes said.

For example, a Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputy did not disclose to the county government when he was hired that he had been the subject of an excessive force lawsuit during his time with the Grants Police Department.

He went on to become a school resource officer at Española Valley High School, where in 2019, he was shown on video tasing a 15-year-old special education student. He was charged with felony child abuse, false imprisonment, aggravated battery and a violation of ethical principles of public service. That case is set for jury selection in May.

There is a national database that lists more than 30,000 police decertifications. But it’s not public, it does not track misconduct and participation by police departments is voluntary.

As the crime package was being debated on the Senate floor, Wirth proposed an amendment to strike the database section.

“There are some timing issues in putting this together so that we actually have the resources to get this right,” Wirth said.

He did not elaborate on what those timing issues are. The bill would have gone into effect on July 1, and would have given the Department of Public Safety a year — until June 30, 2023 — to create the database.

“This eliminates the database requirements simply because the date in the bill was really untenable for them to meet in 2023,” Cervantes said.

Without any debate or objection, the Senate struck the database from the crime package.

The Senate unanimously passed the crime package late Wednesday night, and the House of Representatives approved the package early on Thursday morning.

Multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment from the Department of Public Safety about why a year would be too tight for building a database were not answered as of Friday afternoon.

Legislative analyst Jon Courtney said the database would have contained information on hiring of an officer, their termination, criminal convictions for on-duty conduct, any civil judgments for on-duty conduct, any de-certifications and any separation agreements with past police departments.

In the course of putting the language together for the bill, Courtney said, police agencies told legislative staff that they want the database because as things are now, they do not have a good way to know whether an applicant has just been fired or resigned amid controversy in another jurisdiction.

As part of the oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Albuquerque Police Department already has a similar database in place, Cervantes said.

“Knowing that information from one law enforcement agency would seem to be useful here in our state,” Cervantes told the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday night. “This is about tracking law enforcement officers who, on the job, abuse their office through an excessive use of force. And that’s going to be valuable to other law enforcement agencies, when they’re hiring, and deciding to hire or retain an officer.”

Jennifer Burrill, president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, wrote in a tweet that the database was critical to weeding out bad actors.

She said the database is also needed to comply with major court decisions in place for more than 50 years that require prosecutors to disclose evidence that helps the defendant or impeaches the credibility of the police involved in the case.

It was very disappointing that lawmakers removed the database from the bill, she said, and it’s amazing that one hasn’t already been created by the Law Enforcement Academy Board.

“The hypocrisy is what gets me,” Burrill said. “The people empowered with enforcing the law – don’t have to follow it.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.