February 24, 2021

Police reform bill clears Senate panel after changes

Photo Credit: eviloars cc

Some three weeks after its introduction, a bill encompassing sweeping police reforms cleared its first committee hearing — but only after the sponsor made considerable changes. 

Members of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee voted 4-3 Wednesday to move Senate Bill 227 to the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Among other measures, the bill would restrict police officers’ use of physical force and require them to intercede and report when they witness excessive use of force by a colleague. 

Law enforcement agencies also would have to submit a report to the state within 30 days of an incident and post the report on their website for public access.

But after consulting with officials of the New Mexico branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, removed certain provisions — including prohibiting the use of tear gas, rubber bullets or dogs in certain instances. 

Gone, too, is a provision requiring law enforcement officers to wait 45 seconds after knocking before entering a residence with a search warrant.

But the use of chokeholds is still prohibited in the new substitute bill presented to committee members Wednesday. 

When she first announced the legislation in early February, Lopez cited the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis in May, as an example of the tragic consequences of allowing police officers to cross the line.

On Wednesday, she said that is an issue “not just across the nation, but here in New Mexico.”

However, several people who voiced opposition to the bill during Wednesday’s hearing said it does not take into account what police officers go through when dealing with threatening or dangerous situations.

Clovis Police Department Chief Douglas Ford said sometimes “lethal options” are necessary when officers are dealing with “people who are out of control and violent and fighting and resisting in custody.”

Supporters of the legislation said it will not only hold law enforcement agencies accountable but require them to step up training to ensure officers are prepared to deal with such situations. 

Kenneth Ellis, father of Kenneth Ellis III, a combat veteran who was shot and killed by police officers in Albuquerque during a standoff in 2010, said the legislation is necessary to ensure accountability.

“If we don’t pass this bill, it’s giving them [police officers] the go-ahead to go ahead the way they want to do it,” he said. “Simply put, there’s got to be a set of standards.”

Otherwise, he added, officers can say, “Oh, I was in fear for my life and I was justified to kill.”

Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, took issue with a section of the bill that said officers cannot use the motivation of “anger” as justification for using deadly force. He said police officers need to be seen as human beings. 

“They are people with emotions,” he said. 

Schmedes joined Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, and Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, in voting against the bill. 

In recent years, New Mexico has ranked as the No. 1 state for deadly police shootings per capita. The website Mapping Police Violence reports there were 164 police shootings in the state between 2013 and 2020.

Police reform advocates in the state have long called for law enforcement agencies to implement measures to protect the public and provide more accountability.

Lopez’s bill is one of several police reform measures making their way through this year’s legislative session.