Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia has never had a problem with the New Mexico Law Enforcement Training Academy reducing the length of its state certification program.
It was reduced from 22 weeks to 16 weeks in January. But after reviewing the new curriculum, Garcia says he’s concerned about the new use-of-force and officer-survival lesson plans.
“They’re teaching case law. What really needs to be taught is common sense, especially when it comes to the lethal force,” says Garcia. “We’re not in the Army and we’re not at war with the citizens of Santa Fe.”
Aware that officers face harsh career and life consequences if deadly force is improperly applied, academy Director Jack Jones says his instructors need to teach rookie officers what’s known as the “objective reasonable standard,” because that’s what courts will judge them on after a lethal shooting.
Yet the sheriff, a sworn law enforcement officer for more than three decades, has reminded his staff they must adhere to his rules adopted from the Reactive Control Model (RCM). Garcia says that he plans to train his current recruits on the RCM after they graduate from the academy this spring.
Jones says that’s exactly what he envisioned. The academy, he asserts, doesn’t teach all of the state’s 235 law enforcement agencies’ policies in its basic police officer training program, but rather lays a foundation for what individual jurisdictions will instruct officers to do.
"We also emphasize peace officers must continually reassess the subject's actions and must be prepared to transition as needed to the appropriate force options," says Jones, adding later, "Our goal is to provide the student with the flexibility and latitude to make his/her own decisions and not lock the students into the narrow mindset that a specific suspect action always requires a specific response."
Yet, academy critic Chris Mechels tells SFR he thinks the trainers are “peddling paranoia” becuase they assume that most suspects are ready to be violent. That, he says, puts officers on the offense.
“What seems to be missing from the NMLEA is some appreciation for the sanctity of life and officers’ duty to protect, which includes the poor deranged dude in front of them,” he says.
The Santa Fe Police Department sends its rookies to the academy, but recruiting officers and department spokeswomen Celina Westervelt declined an interview with SFR on the topic. Instead, Westervelt emailed SFR the SFPD’s policy. It allows officers to stop people with a reasonable amount of force when their actions “constitute a clear and present danger to lives and safety of themselves or others.”
SFPD, Westervelt adds, employs “a careful balancing of all human interest,” including the “public welfare.”
Others don’t think state and local police training goes far enough. Steve Charleston, who attended a protest rally in front of Albuquerque Police headquarters last month after officers shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man illegally camping in the Sandia Foothills, says the way police approach confrontations may influence whether force becomes necessary. He wants officers taught how to help, not shoot, mentally ill suspects who are in crisis.
“Crime rates have been going down, but officer-involved shootings have been going up,” says Charleston.
He’s not convinced Albuquerque police officers can justify shooting Boyd on March 16, the 23rd fatal shooting by the department since 2010.
“Cops should be subject to the same laws we are and should have their guilt or innocence determined in the same way as we do,” says Charleston. “Police officers should be held to a higher standard.”
Those legal standards are what prosecutors have to consider after any officer-involved shooting.
Santa Fe’s First Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco hasn’t seen the recent training curriculum. Like Garcia, she says that she supports the RCM. It helped her and an investigative jury clear State Police Officer Oliver Wilson after he shot and killed Santa Fean Jeanette Anaya after a short car chase last fall.
But, Wilson’s clearance upsets Anaya’s family attorney Thomas Clark. He sees a “frightening” correlation between the increase number of shootings and the state’s training program.
“There seems to be a perception that the citizenry of New Mexico is somehow the enemy,” Clark says. “When the law enforcement officers are taught the mindset they are warriors engaged in mortal combat against general citizenry, I think we’ve got a real problem.”
Clark blames Wilson for creating a hostile environment in Anaya’s traffic stop because the officer got out of his car and shot at her vehicle as it moved away from him. He’s preparing a civil suit that a federal court will have to figure it out.
Garcia plans to express his concerns about the new curriculum at a New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association conference next week in Albuquerque.
Jack LeVick, the association’s executive director, is also questioning Jones’ training approach.
“I know Sheriff Garcia is not alone in expressing his concerns,” says Levick. “We’re going to be talking about what’s working and what’s not working. Sometimes force is justified, but there are different ways to respond to some of these situations.”
During the sheriff’s meeting, San Juan County Sheriff Sgt. Dave Pixton is scheduled to teach “verbal judo and verbal defense communication skills.” Those tactics, Garcia says, help deputies redirect a person’s behavior with words.
Mechels, on the other hand, would like to see the new use of force and officer survival guide thrown out completely. The curriculum, he believes, was approved in violation of the state rule-making process. He’s filed an Open Meetings Act violation with the state Attorney General. The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board will consider approving the academy's new curriculum at its next meeting.
Peter St. Cyr is an independent reporter based in Albuquerque and a journalism fellow in Ohio State University’s Kiplinger Program this month.