FARMINGTON – The city of Farmington and the Farmington Police Department made a plea in November to the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission to not remove qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.
The Civil Rights Commission is exploring legislation that would eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement officers in the state.
With qualified immunity, an officer cannot be held personally liable in a civil lawsuit as long as the officer didn’t violate someone’s constitutional rights. Without qualified immunity, officers could be held personally liable in civil lawsuits, and it would require officers and departments to have additional insurance, in effect negatively impacting the city’s financial standing, said Nicole Brown, spokeswoman with the Farmington Police Department.
“Eliminating qualified immunity, we believe, doesn’t impact police culture at all,” Brown said. “As stated, it will only increase cost and liability exposure to the city and department, and nothing changes for the officer personally.”
In a letter addressed to the Civil Rights Commission, Mayor Nate Duckett said the concepts put forward by the commission will “not further police reform or accountability.” Rather, Duckett said, the concepts would increase costs to the department, and ultimately, the city.
“We can take money from other budgets to pay for potential litigation, including monies from the police department budget, but this would be at the expense of hiring, training and holding accountable our police officers,” Duckett wrote in the Nov. 10 letter. “We believe that the keys to making effectual change that promotes better policing and minimizes police misconduct revolves around effectively adopting, implementing, training and coaching good police policies with consistent follow-up and coaching from a robust internal affairs division.”
Duckett went on to say in his letter that the Farmington Police Department has been “ahead of the widely acceptable police practices and policies in use of force, protection of citizens’ rights and accountability.” He added the department had already been using body and dash cams for at least the last 10 years.
“Actual changes to police culture will come from well-constructed policies, excellent training to those policies and holding officers accountable when they are violated,” Brown said. “Personally affecting how officers work day-to-day will come from attending the best possible training and knowing that they’ll be held responsible if they violate the agency’s policies.”
Brown added that two examples of the state of New Mexico “failing” would be the lack of funding to the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and the state’s failure to provide oversight to decertify officers who have records reflecting misconduct.
Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said there are other ways to keep law enforcement officers accountable. First, he said, there should be a designated person to conduct internal affairs investigations and maintain transparency within the department and with the public. The second part would be to require a 40-hour training about how to conduct such investigations.
“The Farmington Police Department rotates new sergeants through internal affairs, allowing them to conduct investigations, read other investigations and gain an appreciation about the importance of the process,” Hebbe said.
Another way to keep officers accountable would be to fix the system to decertify officers who have records of misconduct. According to Hebbe, as of Aug. 21, somewhere between 100 and 200 officer decertification requests have not yet been addressed.
“We should be looking at what types of misconduct are waiting on action, how many, the process and why the delays,” Hebbe said. “Instead of new laws with new requirements, how about we fix the system we have to ensure bad officers aren’t allowed to be officers anymore?”
Hebbe said officers currently have the ability to sue in courts to win their jobs back, making it difficult for departments to enforce decertification for misconduct.
“When departments are trying to hold officers accountable, it’s frustrating to watch the people calling for reform make the process more difficult,” Hebbe said. “Mandate the creation and training of internal affairs units, make the decertification process efficient and transparent, and give departments the tools to enforce accountability. This will advance New Mexico law enforcement more than any new bill being discussed.”