As a born and raised New Mexican, I am sometimes obnoxiously proud of my home state. Any chance I get, I will gush to my friends from other parts of the country about what makes our state special. I’ll look for opportunities to drop into conversation that New Mexico is the only state in the country to have more than two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, or that we have the second-highest number of days of sunshine in a year, or that Santa Fe is the nation’s oldest state capital.
Unfortunately, alongside these fun and special distinctions is a much grimmer and more tragic one: Over the last ten years, New Mexico consistently has one of the highest, and frequently the highest, per capita rate of people killed by police. According to Mapping Police Violence, our state is on track in 2023 to have more people killed by police per capita than any other state in the country.
Because of choices made by generations of policymakers that baked discrimination into nearly every aspect of our criminal legal system, police violence and misconduct in our state disproportionately impact people of color, low-income people, and people experiencing crises brought on by mental health or substance abuse issues.
Some of the names of our neighbors killed by police in recent years may be familiar to you: James Boyd, Amelia Baca, Robert Dotson, Antonio Valenzuela, Brett Rosenau, Elisha Lucero, Presley Eze, Jesus Crosby, Keshawn Thomas. Others may not be. But each story of police violence prompts us to ask, again and again, what needs to be done to keep our communities truly safe?
This disturbingly frequent pattern of killings by police persists even in a year when crime in New Mexico has fallen. Other parts of the country that have similar or even higher rates of crime, including violent crime, have much lower rates of police use of force and killings.
For far too long, the role of the police in our society has expanded and crept into work that police are neither trained nor suited to do. Decades of “tough on crime policies” have made police more omnipresent in our communities than ever before. Whether it’s enforcing laws against behavior that should never have been criminalized in the first place or responding to calls related to homelessness or drug use, this expansion of the role of police does nothing to keep us safe and, disturbingly often, gives rise to police interactions that end in tragedy.
This has to change.
Large infusions of cash designed to grow the police presence in New Mexico cities and towns, like the extra $57 million the governor and legislature directed toward local police departments this year, aren’t the answer to our problems.
Instead, we as a state need to look to the example set by Albuquerque Community Safety and Project LIGHT in Las Cruces. These different models for alternative crisis response are grounded in what we all know to be true: people in crisis need care, support, and access to resources, not a gun pointed at them. Our state needs meaningful investments in a holistic ecosystem of care far more than we need more armed strangers in uniform on our streets.
Although 97% of New Mexicans live in a county where police have killed someone in the last ten years, for many, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) is emblematic of our state’s troubling policing practices. In 2014, the United States Department of Justice found that APD had been engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive and unconstitutional force, resulting in a suite of court-mandated reforms laid out in what is known as the Court Approved Settlement Agreement (CASA). APD has struggled to comply with the CASA for nearly a decade, often resisting and undermining the reforms they were required to enact.
APD and the City of Albuquerque have made significant advances toward full compliance in recent years, but serious issues persist. APD has adopted some of the most progressive use-of-force policies in the state, and overall uses of force are down—something we can all be grateful for and that law enforcement agencies throughout the state can learn from.
However, in 2022, APD officers killed more of our neighbors than they did even before the adoption of the CASA, a trend that thankfully seems not to have carried over into 2023. Meaningful civilian oversight remains elusive. It’s troubling that the most recent report by the Independent Monitor on compliance with the CASA identified “grave and substantial malfeasance” in the way the APD chain of command investigated the killing of Jesus Crosby, who was killed while experiencing a mental health crisis and armed with nothing more dangerous than a pair of nail clippers.
If APD, or any police department in this state, is going to truly reform, a profound culture change needs to take place within the institution of policing.
We all want to live in safe communities – that’s why police reform is so vital. At the ACLU of New Mexico, we are committed to working from the Roundhouse to local police departments around the state to ensure that all New Mexicans can trust that if a police officer is called to a situation, that officer will respect our rights and work for our safety.