Nathan O'Neal & Chris Ramirez
Updated: October 26, 2020 09:06 AM
Created: October 25, 2020 08:12 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Beginning next month, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez plans to implement a new system that identifies and tracks law enforcement officers who have a checkered history that could impede their ability to testify in court. Additionally, Torrez intends to make the names of those officers available to the public.
What Led Up To This
If a list of problem law enforcement officers existed, it would include former Farmington Police Officer Zachary Christiansen. In 2019, then-Officer Christiansen was caught on his lapel video berating and throwing around an 11-year-old female student on campus while he worked as a school resource officer. The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office charged him with child abuse.
The list would also include former Rio Arriba County Deputy Jeremy Barnes. Barnes’s lapel camera captured him repeatedly deploying a taser on a special needs student at Española Valley High School. That student sustained long term injuries and the New Mexico Attorney General also charged that law enforcement officer with child abuse.
The list would also include former Albuquerque Police Officer Fred Duran, who was disciplined for lying to a reporter about the high-profile Victoria Martens case and then eventually fired for lying about facts in a DWI arrest he initiated.
If a list existed, it would be filled with names of officers who have substantiated findings of misconduct.
Problem Police Move Around
Problem officers who get into trouble for misconduct can often jump from department to department while their certification remains intact. Making matters worse, the state board that oversees police misconduct is currently backlogged with more than 100 cases.
When an officer is accused of serious misconduct like former Farmington officer Christensen, their employer is supposed to file a form with the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board. It can lead to the LEA board revoking an officer’s certification, but more often it takes a while before the LEA board can take any action. The 4 Investigates team recently exposed how under understaffing combined with months of board vacancies led to misconduct cases piling up.
“What we’re seeing is you still have officers that their departments don’t believe they should be officers in New Mexico anymore—and they still are,” said Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe.
Roswell Police Chief Philip Smith has also raised concerns about the delayed action of officers’ certifications.
“Because the state isn’t tracking this, they’re getting hired elsewhere,” said Chief Smith.
There are laws designed to ensure problem officers do not interfere with the scales of justice. In the 1963 landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case Brady v. Maryland, justices ruled that prosecutors must provide evidence that might go against a police officer’s credibility in court. The court wanted to ensure that a police officer with tainted credibility who is called to testify, would be known to defense counsel. The legal premise is an added layer of Constitutional protections to make sure people accused of crimes get a fair trial.
“Without that information, the prosecution operates with a distinct advantage that oftentimes the defendant isn't even aware that they have in their possession,” said ALCU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson.
In some states, cops with questionable integrity are referred to as “Giglio” or “Brady” cops, in reference to the Supreme Court case. Here in New Mexico, the 4 Investigates team has discovered there is no statewide list for keeping track of those police officers.
Roswell’s police chief said it’s important to know who those problem officers are because in his view, they are ineffective cops.
“I'll tell you what, I wouldn't want to be a taxpayer paying for a police officer who can't testify or handle evidence, but I'm paying full salary and benefits for them,” said Roswell Police Chief Smith, adding: “Nor would I want to be a victim that has one of these officers take a report where they can't testify in court or handle the evidence or they may compromise the case so the victim gets victimized again.”
District Attorneys are required to generate letters declaring problems with an officer’s integrity ahead of a court case but when it comes to a centralized list of problem officers, it doesn’t exist.
Many of the District Attorneys the 4 Investigates team contacted say their offices simply “do not maintain such a list.”
“I think it’s definitely something that the public should be aware of,” said the ACLU’s Peter Simonson. “I think it should bear on the way that prosecutors go about their business and bringing charges and prosecuting people. It just strikes me that this kind of information is essential.”
A statewide list would help juries better decide if a police officer’s testimony should be trusted. For instance, would you trust former Farmington Police Officer Christensen to testify in a child abuse case, when he himself is charged with child abuse?
The Makings of the First Giglio/Brady Disclosure List
“The state system, for whatever reason hasn't implemented this on a broad scale,” said D.A. Raul Torrez.
D.A. Torrez is the first prosecutor in the state with plans to create a formalized process to identify and track law enforcement officers whose past misconduct could impede justice.
“For me, it comes down to this idea that I am deeply concerned that we have officers that have serious issues in their past that move on to some other community and no one knows," Torrez said.
Earlier this month, D.A. Torrez sent a letter to local law enforcement leaders alerting them of his efforts.
If his office files a disclosure with the court identifying the officer as problematic, D.A. Torrez wants to include that officer in a database, which would be available for the public to see. Torrez’s new method for identifying, tracking and disclosing problem officers is set to begin next month.
“I think the public has a right to know that if I have a concern about a police officer testifying in a case, that seems like a matter of public interest, and we ought to just make it accessible to the public,” said D.A. Torrez.
However, some have serious concerns about D.A. Torrez’s move, including the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Union.
“We hope that prior to making these decisions being made final, that the District Attorney will reach out to the APOA and work with us to ensure that his actions aren't violating officers' rights,” said Shaun Willoughby, President of the APOA.
KOB 4 reached out to the Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. APD’s spokesman never responded to our request for comment and BCSO’s spokesperson stated Sheriff Manny Gonzalez wished to discuss his concerns with the D.A. before making statements to the public.
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