February 17, 2017

Controversial police recuitment ad crops up at chief’s confirmation hearing

Police officer (20s) on radio.

The television clip shows a police SWAT team busting into a home as officers accompanied by dogs fire guns.

It was not the opening of a TV drama but a recruiting ad for the Hobbs Police Department. Its focus on the violence that sometimes comes with work in law enforcement stirred criticism.

Three years after the ad first appeared, the Hobbs police chief, Christopher McCall, remained under scrutiny Friday when he appeared before the Senate Rules Committee for a hearing on his reappointment to the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board. The board is responsible for setting training requirements for police around the state and deciding whether officers accused of misconduct should retain their law enforcement certification.

Committee members eventually supported McCall’s reappointment, but not until Democratic senators had grilled him about their concerns with the board’s practices in a time of heightened national interest over the militarization of police departments and their use of force.

Senators interrogated McCall in part because of Jack Jones, former director of the Law Enforcement Academy Board. Jones had implemented an officer survival lesson plan that taught cadets to have a “warrior mindset.” Jones also sparred with reporters, threatening on one occasion to burn the academy’s curriculum rather than hand it over for public review. Jones’ stands were especially controversial because police in New Mexico have shot and killed more people per capita than their peers in any other state since 2015, according to data from The Washington Post analyzed by The New Mexican.

With the academy under new leadership, McCall was conciliatory to senators.

“We got stuck in a curriculum that had been around for a decade or more. We weren’t keeping up with the change in law enforcement,” McCall told Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, the Rules Committee chairwoman.

McCall described the academy as focusing increasingly on community policing and described the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which former President Barack Obama formed after officers killed an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. McCall said the model provides “good guiding principles.”

As for his own recruiting ad, McCall said he used it to draw attention to the department, not to promote violence. Even so, Democrats pointed to it as an example of a problem.

“All of the images in the commercial from Hobbs were very much images of us versus them, images of separation from the community,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

Democrats also raised concerns about a vote by the Law Enforcement Academy Board last year to limit public comment during meetings and remove its curriculum on use of force from the academy’s website, moves also criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

McCall survived the hearing intact. After about 20 minutes of questioning, the committee unanimously endorsed his appointment. That sent his candidacy to a vote full Senate, which confirmed him.

The Senate on Friday also confirmed three other members of the Law Enforcement Academy Board. They are Elisabeth Miller, Darren Soland and Kelly Burnham.

They were among nearly 100 of Gov. Susana Martinez’s appointees awaiting confirmation hearings in the Senate during this 60-day session. The questioning Friday of McCall was an unusual airing of criticism by the committee tasked with giving each appointee a hearing. In six years, the Senate has only rejected one of the governor’s picks. That was Matt Chandler for a seat on The University of New Mexico Board of Regents.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.