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Policing reforms gain momentum in New Mexico

March 11, 2021 GMT
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State Rep. Bill Rehm, shakes the plexiglass next to his chair to demonstrate the COVID-19 safety features on the floor of the House during the annual legislative session on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M. Most Democratic legislators have appeared in sessions remotely either from their home or office out of concern for COVID-19, while most GOP members are appearing on the house floor in person arguing masking and dividers make the building safe. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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State Rep. Bill Rehm, shakes the plexiglass next to his chair to demonstrate the COVID-19 safety features on the floor of the House during the annual legislative session on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M. Most Democratic legislators have appeared in sessions remotely either from their home or office out of concern for COVID-19, while most GOP members are appearing on the house floor in person arguing masking and dividers make the building safe. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico lawmakers advanced a bill toward a final Senate vote to eliminate police immunity from prosecution in state courts on civil rights violations ranging from racial discrimination to illegal search and seizure and freedom of speech violations.

On a 5-4 vote, a Senate committee on judiciary affairs endorsed the proposed New Mexico Civil Rights Act that also would apply to allegations against local government and public schools. Individual employees would not be liable for judgements.

The bill builds on recommendations from a commission chartered last year by the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham amid nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice. The House has endorsed the legislation.

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Local law enforcement agencies and insurance authorities for schools and local government have vigorously opposed the initiative, warning of higher insurance rates and related tax hikes. Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said Wednesday that the Legislature should instead invest more money in police training.

Gregory Shaffer, director of the New Mexico Counties Insurance Authority, warned of “potentially crippling risk” for local governments, only to be pressed by skeptical Democratic senators for more details on the limits of insurance payouts.

The bill as amended on Wednesday caps civil rights violation financial awards at $2 million per individual plaintiff.

Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces said insurance coverage for local governments exceeds that threshold, especially for a large county.

“It’s already got $10 million of insurance available to settle what might be up, let’s say, a federal civil rights claim,” Cervantes said.

Bill co-sponsor and Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said the bill is narrowly tailored to individual rights guarantees and won’t apply broadly to grievances about employment or school funding.

“The bill is being brought because we want to improve access to justice for New Mexicans whose rights have been denied to them,” he said.

Also Wednesday, the state House endorsed a bill to overhaul how New Mexico police officers are certified and disciplined to try to improve accountability in misconduct investigations.

The House approved the bill from Rep. Moe Maestas of Albuquerque on a 44-22 vote to shift the oversight of misconduct reviews away from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and abolish the commission that reviews disciplinary proceedings against officers.

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In their place would be a new certification board, attached to the Department of Public Safety, with the authority to revoke, suspend and reinstate officers’ licenses.

Maestas said the system for reviewing misconduct allegations is ineffectual and plagued by delays. He says the academy has a backlog of about 130 complaints.

“These officers are not getting resolution; there’s too much anxiety with these allegations hanging over you,” Maestas told House colleagues.

In committee hearings, he said misconduct proceedings are “not fair to the public, who demanded in every city and town in this country police accountability.”

The new nine-member certification review board would include retired officers from a municipal police department, sheriff’s department and tribal police agency, as well as a retired judge, a criminal defense attorney and two more attorneys who represent individuals and agencies in civil rights litigation.

Law enforcement groups have opposed the legislation, though some acknowledge negotiating parts of the bill with Maestas.

Republican state Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque, who’s a retired police officer, called the measure a “knee-jerk reaction” to a backlog of misconduct reviews and objected to rescinding protections for police.

“There are other provisions in there that are important, like what political activity an officer can be engaged in and not engaged in,” Rehm said.

A provision was stripped from the bill that would have repealed the state Peace Officer’s Employer-Employee Relations Act in an effort to streamline misconduct investigations. The American Civil Liberties Union favored the change, while police officer associations have defended the that law as a crucial bill of rights for law enforcement personnel.

Under the bill, the state Law Enforcement Academy would narrow its mission to the initial training and certification of officers.

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

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This version corrects that a reform bill retains the Peace Officer’s Employer-Employee Relations Act in state statutes.