New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. Photo by Roger Snodgrass/ladailypost.com
ESPAÑOLA — Meeting at Northern New Mexico College Tuesday, a little-known governing board with many pressing responsibilities in the state, found itself in new political territory.
It was the first meeting of the year for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board and, therefore, the first occasion for newly elected Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, to hold the gavel as the ex-officio chairman.
A few minutes into Tuesday’s meeting, Balderas made his first move at the helm, calling for a motion to pass a legally required statement of what qualifies as an open public meeting for the board, a measure the board had not taken before and one that has been an issue in recent meetings because of decisions that have been made without public notice.
“Our primary mission is most importantly to try to conduct ourselves in strict compliance with the open meetings act and other regulatory acts and laws that impact the board’s business,” Balderas said, the first of several steps he took that served to begin to take the business of the board in hand.
The board, which happens to be all males, serves 235 law enforcement agencies in New Mexico and about 6,000 police officers according State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, who was elected vice-chairman without opposition. One of board’s main functions is to oversee operations of the Law Enforcement Academy in Santa Fe and establish standards for a number of other satellite academies around the state. The board also plays an important administrative role in disciplinary proceedings by awarding, suspending and revoking law enforcement officer certifications.
Balderas takes over an entity that was chartered as an independent Police Officer Standards and Training agency in 1969, but has increasingly come under the influence of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, going back to the previous administration, but also including the current one. When current Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden was confirmed as secretary of DPS, as a review of the transcripts of the last two years of minutes reveals, the board began to make a number of changes in personnel, in the training curriculum and in the procedures of the board, which have become more conspicuous in the light of a growing national concerns about police violence and police training.
The board has been under fire lately from Chris Mechels, a systems analyst retired from Los Alamos Laboratory, a citizen activist who used to keep close watch on a range of management competency issues at the lab, but in recent years has devoted himself to the police violence problem, which has in turn led him to scrutinize law enforcement training as a possible explanation. He has waylaid the board on a raft of technical issues and has given notice of intent to take legal action on some of them, including open meetings violations and illegal rule-making. He has found a number of what he considers objectionable changes in the training curriculum including some that discriminate against women, others that lower the firearms shooting standards and another that completely eliminates sections of the curriculum having to do with community policing and police patrolling.
“I maintain that every change you make to the curriculum since December (2013) is illegal,” Mechels said during one of his brief opportunities for public comment Tuesday.
In the last year and a half or so, a series of civic storms erupted around the country sharing a common theme of excessive police force. Because of high profile cases in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, and Española, recent meetings of the Law Enforcement Academy Board have included appearances by relatives of victims of lethal force.
On Tuesday, two mothers whose children were shot by policemen and subsequently declared not guilty by grand juries addressed the board. Mary Shoemaker, mother of 16-year-old Victor Villalpando of El Rito and Teresa Anaya, mother of 39-year-old Jeanette Anaya expressed their grief and hoped for signs of improvements in the system that would prevent such things from happening again.
“You have our commitment that we will be looking at ways to value the community, and that everyone is safe and that we honor you,” Balderas said.
The new chairman, using his prerogative as chair, made two other significant moves during the course of the meeting. At one point, while the item under discussion was about reviewing the procedures for setting sanctions, assigning penalties and tracking disciplinary action taken by agencies, Balderas said he was going to appoint a subcommittee to examine the question with Board Director Jack Jones and get a handle on all the facts related to the topic of discipline and “report back to this body and the public.”
A little later, retiring board member Nate Korn asked for a vote on whether the right to set an item on the agenda should be restricted to Board members. Korn argued for approval to begin a rule-making process at the next meeting to restrict that right.
“I believe our rules … are somewhat unique in that we will permit anybody to put an item on our agenda, and then the board spends time discussing things that may not involve the board, that may be extraneous to the matters we handle or the matter we are unable to handle, but it does take time from other matters we can do well,” Korn said. He added that he was not trying to restrict input and that there were alternatives available to the public, such as contacting a board member.
In response, Balderas rolled this issue up into a second subcommittee that would look at all the governance issues all at once and come back with a full report, if the board would not be opposed to that.
He proposed that the legal staff would do the research and that the subcommittee would be given a full briefing to screen out problems before the board begins to make policy. “I’d hate the policy to be compromised by some violation of the open meetings act.”
After some discussion, there were no further objections.
Information on law enforcement training, future board meetings, minutes and agendas can be found at the LEA website.