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To prevent police shootings, provide better training — and don’t be afraid to prosecute

April 8, 2019

When it comes to the shootings of civilians, police officers too often appear to get away with murder. Officers who shoot and kill rarely are prosecuted and even more rarely are found to have committed crimes.

To be sure, the police of a city or town have the heavy responsibility of protecting public safety and do so at great risk to their own lives; they face down danger day in and day out. All of the Monday-morning quarterbacks who second-guess the split-second decisions of a cop to shoot or to hold fire are not the ones facing death or injury.

That’s one reason district attorneys, in New Mexico and elsewhere, go slowly when bringing police officers to trial. They understand the risky nature of law enforcement. Another factor, to be blunt, is that DAs do not want to be in conflict with police officers — the officers, after all, gather evidence for the crimes the prosecutors take to court. A district attorney who wants to be successful cannot be at odds with police.

Yet, to ensure justice, a district attorney must be ready to put cops behind bars, just as happens with all other wrongdoers.

When running for office, First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna put forth what sounded like a workable plan to handle police-involved shootings. He would bring such cases before a panel of DAs from other jurisdictions to review evidence so that an independent decision about whether to prosecute could be made. No longer would the Santa Fe DA have to worry about conflicts of interest, perceived or otherwise.

Unfortunately, plans do not always work as intended.

A panel — made up of District Attorneys Raul Torres, Andrea Reeb and Richard Flores — found recently that two Santa Fe police officers should not be charged in the shooting of Anthony Benavidez during a SWAT standoff in 2017. According to the findings, the panel found “insufficient factual basis” after reviewing the state police investigation to charge Jeramie Bisagna and Luke Wakefield.

The family of Benavidez is outraged and through their lawyers, have sent a letter to Serna asking he reconsider the decision. They believe the panel did not look closely enough at officers’ statements describing what happened before the shootings, statements they believe demonstrate the cops should have held their fire. State law, according to the panel, holds that officers don’t have to prove the suspect posed a great threat of bodily harm — they must only offer evidence raising such a possibility. If that analysis is correct, then perhaps state law needs to be strengthened; it should not be acceptable to shoot on a hunch.

Serna has said he will review the record, and that’s the right thing to do. More specifically, Serna and other DAs, as well as Attorney General Hector Balderas, must be part of seeking broader changes to support improved training for all police in the state. Officers must receive more extensive training in handling dangerous situations; SWAT teams do not need to invade apartments, guns blazing, except in very rare instances.

Negotiate with suspects. Wait them out. Defuse rather than escalate conflicts. Show officers how that works, not just as they train at the police academy but after they are on duty.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced her state police chief on Friday. Chief Tim Johnson needs to review the training recruits receive — as well as the continuing training of current officers — to see how to better equip police officers in New Mexico for de-escalating conflicts. This should be a top priority.

The governor and other leaders, including Balderas, also can look at broader reforms. The decision whether to prosecute could be handled by establishing a special prosecutor’s office to deal with violence by police. That takes pressure away from local DAs and adds oversight. State law also limits the amounts families can collect after shootings; relatives of Benavidez received $400,000 in a settlement with the city of Santa Fe, the maximum amount. Larger settlements could prompt improved prevention efforts.

Shootings by police fracture the trust that is essential between a community and those charged with its protection. That trust can be restored only when citizens believe that no one — police officer or not — will be above the law.

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