February 3, 2021

A bill to hold peace officers accountable for sexual crimes passes first committee

Laura Paskus

A bill that advocates said would increase accountability of peace officers who commit sexual crimes against people in their custody passed its first hurdle Tuesday.

The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee passed HB 156 along party lines with a 3 to 2 vote. House Rep. Brittany Barreras, an independent from Albuquerque who caucuses with Democrats, is sponsoring the bill. Barreras introduced the bill with a personal story about winding up in the hospital due to an officer’s arrest.

The bill will, if it passes, amend the criminal code that governs criminal sexual penetration in the second degree. HB 156 would add sexual penetration perpetrated by a peace officer on a suspect, victim, witness or detained person in the care or custody of any peace officer.

According to the fiscal impact statement, the bill is similar to existing laws that criminalize an officer committing sexual penetration against an inmate. 

Both Republicans, state Rep. Stefani Lord of Sandia Park and Randall Pedigrew, of Lovington, argued the bill would create a redundancy with the law already on the books.  .

Democratic state House Rep. Andrea Romero, of Santa Fe, said she didn’t think this bill is a “red herring.”

“Where I grew up, we didn’t feel safe with law enforcement around,” Romero said.

Alexandria Taylor, chair of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Advisory Council for Racial Justice and director of Sexual Assault Services, New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, spoke as one of the expert witnesses for the bill. 

She said sexual misconduct is the second most reported form of abuse by a peace officer after excessive force.

“It’s hard to hold officers accountable without this law. This is one of those times we need a specific statute,” she said. 

Barreras said sexual violence is an underreported crime and that LGBTQ+, people with disabilities and lower incomes are more likely to be victims of these crimes. 

“HB 156 addresses abuse to sexually harm people they are entrusted to protect and serve,” Barreras said.