Facing backlog of police misconduct cases, AG calls state agency’s process ‘absolute train wreck’ | KOB 4
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Facing backlog of police misconduct cases, AG calls state agency’s process ‘absolute train wreck’

Nathan O'Neal
Updated: September 14, 2020 01:14 PM
Created: September 13, 2020 06:47 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Some law enforcement leaders characterize the system designed to hold so-called “bad cops” accountable in New Mexico a “failure” and an “absolute train wreck.” 

The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, which handles police misconduct investigations, is facing a significant backlog, with at least 130 active cases, according to state officials. 

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MISCONDUCT & ACCOUNTABILITY 

The KOB 4 Investigates team first exposed a disturbing case of policing at a middle school last year. Lapel footage shows the Aug. 27 incident where former Farmington police officer Zachary Christensen roughed up an 11-year-old girl with special needs. He resigned last year following an internal investigation by his own police department, which found multiple violations including “violating use of force policy” and “unsatisfactory performance.” 

In November 2019, the Farmington Police department submitted an LEA-90 form to the state, which is used to report police misconduct to the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy. In some cases, it can be the first step to revoking a problem officer’s certification. 

“No action has been taken on the case… it’s nine months and counting,” said Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe, who also serves as president of the New Mexico Police Chiefs Association. 

“There is a problem, no doubt about it,” said Chief Hebbe. 

The KOB 4 Investigates team has learned the NMLEA board — which has the power to revoke a police officers certification is facing a substantial backlog: 130 active cases, all facing serious allegations of misconduct.

“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 — that’s at its most sinister,” said Chief Hebbe. “I think if you've got a backlog of two to three years, which is what I'm hearing rumors of, that you've got officers working in the state of New Mexico who should not be police officers anymore -- but we don't have the process down and we're not taking action fast enough to make it happen.”

It’s a problem realized in the southeastern corner of the state. Roswell Police Chief Philip Smith has also seen problems with the backlog following investigations into the misconduct of some of his own officers, which includes four cases of dishonesty, two drug use cases, one DWI arrest and one excessive force case. 

“The last three — the DWI, the excessive force and the admitted drug use hasn’t come before the board yet,” said Chief Smith. “Because the state isn't tracking this, they're getting hired elsewhere.” 

BACKLOGGED AND UNDERSTAFFED

The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board is made up of nine part-time members and managed by one director: Kelly Alzaharna. 

Alzaharna refused to participate in a recorded interview but told the KOB 4 Investigates team there are a few reasons for the current caseload. 

According to Alzaharna, when Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham took office last year, it took roughly nine months for a new board director to be appointed — so the cases piled up. 

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas currently chairs the board. 

4 Investigator Nathan O’Neal: The way things are handled, do you think they’re effective enough right now? 

AG Balderas: “No, I think some of the situations that the Law Enforcement Academy is faced with is unacceptable,” adding later: “Ultimately the way the Legislature has structured this is… I don’t run the Academy, we just have policy oversight and I would rather that the Legislature put a team independently accountable to the citizens and elevate this to a cabinet level type position … so that there’s real accountability.”

The Law Enforcement Academy is also chronically understaffed - with current staffing levels at 35 percent and only one staff member is responsible for helping push the caseload along, according to director Alzaharna. 

4 Investigator Nathan O’Neal: “Do you think that’s enough to handle this kind of caseload? 

AG Balderas: “Absolutely not. This has been an absolute train wreck through two to three decades.” 

The state currently does not keep a running list of officers who have had their certifications revoked nor does it maintain a list of pending misconduct cases. 

NMLEA board director Alzaharna concedes it will take considerable time to get caught up with the current caseload but she could not estimate how long that might take. 

While police reform protests continue to flare up in New Mexico and across the country, many law enforcement leaders agree that streamlining the process for holding officers accountable is key to maintaining public trust. 

“We talk bout weeding out the bad apples or the bad cops … I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of it so I absolutely have that as a fear that you’ve got cops right now working, representing us, representing the uniform and the badge to communities that shouldn’t be in the business anymore — and we knew it and we submitted the paperwork down and the process is… the bureaucracy is preventing us from getting the solution we should have,” said Farmington Police Chief Hebbe.


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