According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 36% of people believe that Police do a poor job of holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs, and that jumps to 70% when you take into account only the Black population.
In honor of sunshine week, which promotes open government and the freedom of information, Local law enforcement officials, public advocates, and members of the press held a discussion about the availability of information in officer-involved shootings.
In Dona Ana County, a task force of officers from the Las Cruces Police Department, Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Office, New Mexico State Police, and New Mexico State University Police investigate officer- involved shootings and bring a report to the District Attorney. In the past, it has been difficult to get the details contained in those reports because of exclusions in Public records law. Susan Boe, Executive Director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government says it is the same in other areas of the state.
“We would take the position that those are in fact public documents,” Boe said. “The district attorney for a while in Albuquerque was trying to keep those secret saying that these were Grand Jury proceedings, but now she does turn those over, and so we’d like to see them.”
Michael Kinney, a captain with the Dona Ana County Sheriff’s office says that he agrees the reports should be released, but at the right time in order to protect the investigation and ensure the safety of the officer involved.
“There’s a right place and a right time for it,” Kinney said. “And with as complex as some of these cases are, and with the way that investigations unfold. I don’t think that there is any way we can point to one specific list or timetable as to how and when things are done. I think it has to be done on a case by case basis, always airing on the side of as soon as possible.”
Walt Rubel, Opinion page editor for the Las Cruces Sun-News, says he knows that the officer’s have to make tough decisions, but that the public needs to have a part in the review process.
“I’m very reluctant to even go into this,” Rubel said. “Because I can’t imagine what would go through an officer’s mind during that split second when he or she would have to make that decision. I mean, I don’t want to put myself in those shoes, so I’m very leery of sitting in judgment of people who do have to make that decision. At the same time, I don’t understand how you can have faith in the system unless you can see that final report, and have a chance to look at what they looked at, evaluate what they evaluated, and see if they actually did come to a fair and unbiased decision.”
Dona Ana County District Attorney Mark D’Antonio said that releasing the information helps the officers.
“Openness is good for good cops,” D’Antonio said. “And they welcome that. And I never met an officer yet that said ‘hey, I want this private.’ They do a really good job. And they want the public’s recognition and acknowledgement of that. And they have to share good or bad with the public what happens because that’s their duty. As an elected official especially, my duty is to represent the public.”
NMSU Police Chief, Stephen Lopez says that it is essential to have the faith of the community you are protecting.
“Police are supposed to be part of the community,” Lopez said. “And as part of the community, we represent the community interests and the community standards, morals and ethics, and so it’s very important to have open communication within the community.”
Overall the panel did agree that the more information released, the more the community would be able to trust the process.