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N.M. law enforcement responds to nationwide calls for reform

State attorney general moves to ban chokeholds
San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari at the Justice for George Floyd protest in Farmington on June 1.

FARMINGTON – Advocates across the state and country are demanding police reforms, including a ban on the use of chokeholds, with some pushing to defund police departments in favor of community services.

Local officials have said while they agree with most of the police reform policies – and already have a majority of them in place – they do not support the idea of what they consider to be extreme calls to defund police departments.

Farmington Police Department Chief Steve Hebbe released a statement shortly after the death of George Floyd, condemning the police actions shown in the video. In an interview with The Durango Herald last week, Hebbe said when tragic events like that happen around the country, it typically sparks internal conversations in the department.

“You talk about if you need to change policies,” he said. “You talk about it in your own building and you talk about it internally.”

He said in the case of Floyd’s death, he felt it was important to let the public know where he and the Farmington Police Department stood.

“It really felt like we got to show the public what we do think about these things. That is not what police do,” Hebbe said. “Our silence does not give the public that reassurance.”

San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari also said the death of Floyd sparked internal conversations within his department.

“We’re constantly monitoring other agencies, and we learn from people’s experiences, positively and negatively, and look at our own policies and if there are updates needed,” he told the Herald.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas asked state lawmakers to ban the use of chokeholds in early June and said he would seek legislation on police use-of-force policies, like a statewide body camera requirement across all agencies to increase transparency and accountability.

Both Farmington Police Department and San Juan County Sheriff’s Office already had a ban on the use of chokeholds. FPD and the Sheriff’s Office also said officers are trained in de-escalation tactics; officers are trained to issue a use-of-force warning; officers are trained to use the least amount of force; officers have a duty to intervene and ensure the safety of community members; and all use-of-force instances must be reported and investigated.

The city of Farmington and four FPD officers are being sued by a couple who filed a wrongful death lawsuit in July 2019 in federal court over the 2018 death of their son, Daniel. Walter and Tamara Turner say their 40-year-old son was in a mental health crisis when officers were called, according to the court file. In the lawsuit, the couple say officers kept pressure on Daniel’s upper body while he lay on his stomach with handcuffs.

The District Attorney’s Office did not press charges against the officers at the time, and the FPD internal investigation after the incident determined the officers did not violate the department’s policies.

Training and police reform

Hebbe and Ferrari both highlighted the crisis intervention and de-escalation trainings available to officers. Hebbe said the crisis intervention course is a 40-hour class with a refresher training for officers on a two-year cycle. Currently, there are 20 officers who are scheduled to complete the training, which was postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“All of that has changed our culture and continues to change our culture,” Hebbe said. “Focus more on communication and less on use of force.”

Ferrari said in addition to the mandated crisis intervention and de-escalation trainings, the Sheriff’s Office has a monitoring and tracking system for every use-of-force incident. He said each incident is logged and reviewed for incidents of excessive use of force or too many use-of-force incidents by deputies. The department will look to see if additional training or corrective action is necessary.

“It’s not just about policy and training but the constant review of incidents, too,” he said.

Peter Simonson, executive director for the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union, said de-escalation training is one ingredient in reforms. Beyond training, police departments need to have “a reliable system of investigating use-of-force incidents, identifying out-of-policy behavior and disciplining officers that violate people’s rights,” he said.

Simonson said another key to reducing excessive use of force is to reduce the number of interactions between armed officers and the public.

Hebbe, Ferrari and Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett said they do not agree with defund the police movements .

“I don’t believe it’s practical,” Duckett said. “Law enforcement serves a role here in our community. It’s an important piece of what keeps us safe.”

Duckett said the city is trying to work hand-in-hand with mental health care providers and has a group that meets every month with first responders. When asked about allocating more resources to mental health services, he said funding is “based upon the need.”

Simonson said the “defunding the police” label has gotten misconstrued in the last month. He said the idea is focused on reprioritizing police funding.

If reducing the number of interactions between armed officers and the public reduces excessive use-of-force violations then “that means replacing them with alternative professionals who are better trained and better equipped to mange the kind of societal problems that give rise to low level crimes,” he said. “We’d like to see the reinvestment of police budgets into the kind of systems and structures to address the behaviors being criminalized.”

Simonson said the police reform conversation is a large one and de-escalation training, use-of-force monitoring and barring chokeholds are just one aspect.

“At the end of the day, if we want to shift police culture away from the kind of violence we’ve seen nationally and here in the state of New Mexico, it will require reforming the vision of what policing is all about,” he said.

Simonson said in the last few decades there has been a mentality shift of looking at the police as if they are a separate interest group instead of as members of the community.

“For some reason, we forget that they work on behalf of our community, not in opposition to us,” he said.

lweber@durangoherald.com

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