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COLUMN: Police Misconduct

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By Jay Miller

 What remedies do people have if they are mistreated by law enforcement officers? Last week an interim legislative committee considered the question and heard evidence that there isn’t much that can be done under present law.

Testimony indicated that complaints to local officials seldom result in any action. Albuquerque has some police oversight mechanisms but no one present recommended them as being models others should use.

Generally, there appeared to be agreement that law enforcement misconduct should be handled at the local level but that most attempts to do so are not working because local officials tend to support each other.

Likewise, internal affairs investigations by police departments seldom result in any penalties against officers. According to testimony, internal reviews protect law enforcement from the public and there is no mechanism for protecting the public from police misconduct.

The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy trains and certifies law enforcement officers and can decertify them after receiving and investigating complaints. Typically it is a cumbersome, slow-moving process that doesn’t result in many decertifications.

Arthur Ortiz, director of the academy, testified to the committee that he is speeding up the process but that failure of local sheriffs and police chiefs to report misconduct is his biggest problem.

Paul Borunda, a citizen from Las Cruces, presented the panel with numerous instances of police misconduct that have gone unpunished in Las Cruces because of interlocking relationships among local law enforcement officials. He recounted his efforts to find anyone at the local or state level to take any responsibility for overseeing law enforcement misconduct.

Borunda also spoke of efforts to get Attorney General Gary King involved in law enforcement misconduct but his reply was that his job is to protect the state and not the people.

King then told the committee that his client is the state and not its people. He said misconduct charges should be taken to local elected officials and if they aren’t handled to the satisfaction of the public, they can be turned out of office at the next election.

Committee Chairman Sen. Cisco McSorley of Albuquerque complimented Borunda on his tireless efforts doing what no local or state agencies do.

McSorley concluded that since law enforcement oversight is not working at the local level, an entity should be created at the state level to oversee, investigate and punish law enforcement misconduct. He asked King to compute the costs of establishing a state review board.

It seems as though our country is missing something if we can’t protect our citizens from those few cases when law enforcement officers get out of hand. Our founding fathers knew the horrors of living in police states. They wanted to protect the public against such conditions.

They provided us with a judicial system to insure that protection but it is a very cumbersome and expensive process. And if local law enforcement violates a person’s civil rights, redress can’t be found in local or state courts. Only federal courts handle such charges.

It seems to me I have heard attorney general candidates run for office as the people’s lawyer. It sounds good in campaign material. But it’s not the truth. The attorney general defends the state against its people.

Have you noticed that when the governor takes an action requiring legal defense, he hires his own lawyers to defend him. Sometimes the attorney general is on the other side of the case. So who is representing the people? Both the governor and the attorney general would say they are. But are they really?

Bill White, a municipal judge from Edgewood, east of Albuquerque, told the panel that the biggest problem with police misconduct is that Congress has made surplus military equipment available to civilian police departments, which now use that equipment in a manner that has built a paramilitary culture within police departments. Police are supposed to serve and protect the people.

Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist in Santa Fe. He may be reached by e-mail to insidethecapitol@hotmail.com.