Governor weighs bill revising oversight of police training

·5 min read

Feb. 23—SANTA FE — The sweeping crime package passed in the final hours of this year's legislative session would restructure New Mexico's law enforcement academy and set new training standards for officers.

The provisions — often overlooked in the broader debate over the bill — call for the academy's curriculum to include use-of-force training that eliminates chokeholds and adds peer intervention when another officer is out of line and de-escalation strategies.

The proposal also would split the academy's governing board in two — with one panel focused on officer training, the other on certification.

The proposed changes, supporters say, would improve training to limit problems before they arise and promote swift accountability for officers accused of misconduct.

"I'm really hopeful that this will give us a chance to really make a difference in New Mexico law enforcement," Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said in an interview Monday.

The president of the Albuquerque Police Officers' Association, by contrast, is skeptical. Shaun Willoughby said the curriculum has some important components but that it could be too expensive for small departments to carry out.

"It looks good on paper," he said, "but I want to see the execution because that's what matters."

The legislation, House Bill 68, is on its way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has until March 9 to act on it.

The proposal is a combination of crime bills that had been working their way through the Legislature independently.

They were rolled together in the final days of the session and won final passage in the early-morning hours of the last day.

The legislation includes retention bonuses for officers, enhanced penalties for some crimes and an elimination of the statute of limitations for bringing charges of second-degree murder. Another provision — the focus of much debate — outlines new requirements for the sharing of ankle-monitor data when a defendant awaiting trial is suspected in a new crime.

But some sections of the measure attracted little attention. The bill, for example, increases the death benefit for family members of police officers killed in the line of duty to $1 million — the highest amount, supporters say, in the country.

It would also make a host of changes to the Law Enforcement Academy Board and officer training.

Under the proposal:

— The academy's law enforcement curriculum would include training on crisis management and intervention, de-escalation, peer-to-peer intervention, stress management, racial sensitivity and reality-based situational training.

It also requires use-of-force training that "includes the elimination of vascular neck restraints" — the maneuver that killed a 40-year-old man in Las Cruces during a confrontation with police two years ago.

The attorney for the officer in that case said he had been trained to use the neck restraint and carried it out in accordance with Las Cruces Police Department policies. The department has since prohibited the use of vascular neck restraints, a police spokesman said.

— Some of the Law Enforcement Academy Board duties would be assigned to a new training council.

It would consist of the director of the academy, the heads of satellite academies and seven appointees of the governor: a prosecutor, a public defender, a police chief from a Native American nation, two people with experience in adult education, a citizen with experience as a behavioral health provider and a seventh person, who can't have ever worked as an officer.

— Other academy board duties would be transferred to a new certification board. It would have a retired judge, a city police officer, a sheriff, a tribal police officer, a civil rights or defense attorney, an attorney who defends public agencies against civil rights claims and a public defender .

The board would oversee granting, denying, suspending and revoking officers' licenses.

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the curriculum outlined in the bill is intended to modernize law enforcement training while still granting flexibility to the training council on how to carry it out.

Some law enforcement agencies operate their own academies, he said, but the state academy sets the cultural tone and influences what happens in individual police departments.

The dividing of the academy board into two entities, Maestas said, would be similar to how lawyers are trained in law school but then licensed and disciplined by other entities.

"This is tremendous — a victory for the state of New Mexico," he said of the changes.

Hebbe and other supporters also contend that breaking the academy board into two separate entities will help the state more quickly resolve allegations of misconduct that could jeopardize an officer's certification.

Willoughby, however, said the composition of the proposed training council is problematic. It has too many attorneys and other members without direct experience in policing, he said.

"You need real cops who have real-world experience to be involved in this," Willoughby said. "I think they missed the mark with this legislation."

The proposal is not yet law.

A year ago, Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that sought to change the makeup of the academy board, contending it would have weakened civilian oversight.

This year, district attorneys have opposed the part of the bill focusing on ankle-monitoring data. They say it's too restrictive to help law enforcement.

In a written statement, Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas said his office strongly supports "the legislative efforts to increase funding to modernize law enforcement training, as well as banning the use of deadly choke holds. Increasing the death benefit for fallen officers' families was also an important reform we supported."