No standardized procedure for police shooting investigations in NM

No standardized procedure for police shooting investigations in NM

While police shootings across New Mexico have been a controversial issue for years, charges against officers who pulled the trigger have been extremely rare.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – While police shootings across New Mexico have been a controversial issue for years, charges against officers who pulled the trigger have been extremely rare. 

However, that has seemingly changed in recent weeks after two Las Cruces police officers were charged for their alleged roles in deadly shootings. 

On Tuesday, Doña Ana County District Attorney Gerald Byers announced Felipe Hernandez had been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Teresa Gomez in October of last year.  

Bodycam video appeared to show Hernandez shooting Gomez as she was driving away in her vehicle, following about eight minutes of questioning over whether she and the passenger in her vehicle were trespassing at a housing complex. 

Additionally, another Las Cruces officer, Brad Lunsford, was indicted by a grand jury on a charge of voluntary manslaughter in December of last year for allegedly shooting Presley Eze during a scuffle in August 2022. 

Authorities say Eze was being questioned over reports that someone stole a beer from a gas station.  He reportedly resisted attempts by officers to take him into custody, eventually reaching for the taser of one of the officers at the scene. That’s when Lunsford allegedly shoots Eze in the back of the head, killing him. 

But whether these two cases mark a significant change across the state going forward remains to be seen. 

The state’s largest city has witnessed more than 30 total police shootings in the past two years, but those instances so far have not resulted in any charges against Albuquerque officers. 

“There is data supporting that since the pandemic until now, the number of individuals armed with a firearm has increased four times what it was pre-pandemic, and this is leading to more officer-involved shootings,” said APD Chief Harold Medina at a news conference last week.

Medina has previously noted that shootings represent just a very small percentage (about 3%) of APD’s overall use-of-force investigations. 

But the last time an APD officer faced serious criminal charges related to a shooting was back in 2014.  Officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez were charged in the shooting death of James Boyd, who was camping in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.  He was reportedly in possession of multiple knives at the time of the shooting. 

That case garnered national attention but eventually ended in a mistrial, and the charges were dropped.  

Still, to this day, there is no unified statewide policy regarding officer-involved shooting investigations. 

“First, there is no standardized procedure.  There’s nothing in the statute that says how it should be done,” noted Byers while addressing the charges against Felipe Hernandez on Tuesday. 

In the case of Hernandez, it was a coalition of investigators from at least four different agencies that presented evidence to Byers.  Those agencies included the Las Cruces Police Dept., the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office, New Mexico State Police, and New Mexico State Univ. Police, according to Byers. 

He says he then used the evidence the task force presented to make his decision to press charges. But he noted it’s not handled that way in every jurisdiction across the state.

“Some organizations, some areas, some districts have an officer-involved shooting task force. Others do not,” stated Byers.

Regardless of how these investigations are handled by different agencies, Medina and others say the goal is always to avoid these situations whenever possible through proper training and preparation. 

“We will continue to make sure that we’re looking to see every six months what trends there are and how we could address those trends to better equip our officers to avoid the potential use of deadly force,” said Medina at last week’s conference.