New Mexico’s governor is pushing for legislation that would essentially shield cops from getting sued when they injure or kill civilians, if they are following department protocol.
Republican Gov. Susan Martinez told the Albuquerque Journal that the law could be used, for example, in a scenario where a suspect is fleeing on foot, ignores police orders to stop, and is ultimately tackled — and perhaps injured — by an officer.
“This bill would protect citizens and law enforcement officers from the massive payouts that taxpayers are giving crooks and thieves who are hurt or injured by police officers who are doing their job,” explained Martinez.
The governor’s proposed legislation wouldn’t exempt police officers from civil liability in all circumstances. For example, cops wouldn’t be protected if they’d clearly or intentionally broken departmental rules and protocol. However, it’s not clear who makes that determination.
But critics say that failing to hold cops legally accountable for their actions will only encourage bad behavior, especially in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, which has been under federal oversight for the last four years due to unconstitutional policing.
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“Police officers are rarely held accountable when they use excessive force in interactions with the public,” said Steve Allen, the policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “From a public safety perspective, this undermines the trust between police and communities they serve, and that ultimately undermines public safety in general.”
Violent crime in New Mexico, driven largely by crime in Albuquerque, has been steadily increasing since 2007. FBI crime data from 2016 shows that New Mexico was the second most dangerous state in the country due to the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents (after Alaska). As was the case in major cities across the country, Albuquerque also saw a significant spike in homicides in recent years; murders surged 32 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Gov. Susana Martinez says fear of being sued means cops are less likely to use force where appropriate. “I don’t believe that police officers should be under this constant threat of lawsuits that will often cause them to pause,” Martinez told the Albuquerque Journal. “If they’re following their training, there should be something that protects them.”
But a VICE News investigation into police shooting across the largest cities in the United States found that cops in Albuquerque, New Mexico alone shot 68 people from 2010 to 2016. Thirty-six of those shootings were fatal. And of the 47 metropolitan police departments that VICE News was able to obtain shooting data from, Albuquerque had the ninth-highest police shooting rate (measured per 100,000 residents).
Albuquerque Police Department has also been under fire for allegedly flouting the terms of an agreement with the Justice Department, which was brokered in 2014 after a scathing report found that officers routinely violated people’s constitutional civil rights through excessive force.
The agreement, or consent decree, binds Albuquerque to implementing reforms recommended in the report, and places the department under federal oversight until the reform process is complete. But the court-appointed monitor overseeing the decree has repeatedly accused Albuquerque Police Department of “deliberate noncompliance.”
This isn’t the only tough-on-crime measure that Martinez is hoping to get through during the upcoming legislative session that kicks off in Santa Fe next week. She’s also proposed reinstating the death penalty, which was abolished in New Mexico in 2009, for people who kill police officers, corrections officers and children, harsher penalties for people who commit crimes while they’re on parole, and a “three strikes” rule that would grant an automatic life sentence to anyone convicted of three violent felonies.
In 2017, the city of Albuquerque closed out four major settlements connected to officer-involved deaths, which included $8.5 million to the family of Ashley Browder, 21, who was killed by an Albuquerque sergeant in 2013 car crash — the largest settlement in the city’s history. The family of James Boyd, a homeless camper with schizophrenia who was fatally shot by police in 2014, was awarded $5 million. The family of Christopher Torres who was shot dead in 2011 by officers in his backyard was awarded $6 million. And former undercover officer Jacob Grant, who was shot by his supervisor and survived got $6.5 million.
From 2010 to 2016, law enforcement-related lawsuits were settled in court for a total of $62.3 million. Chicago, by comparison, paid a whopping $210 million in police misconduct, which includes polite brutality, lawsuits from 2012 to 2015. Baltimore, which has a similar population size to Albuquerque, paid $5.7 million over four years in police brutality lawsuits.
A spokesperson for Martinez’s office did not return VICE News request for comment.