Under renewed public pressure, Santa Fe Police Chief Patrick Gallagher says he plans to disclose the results of an internal investigation into one of his sergeants who posted racist and offensive memes on his Facebook page.
The move would mark a dramatic departure for a department that for years has kept all details of internal investigations, including discipline, secret from the public.
Even if a police officer shoots someone with a mental illness and has fired his weapon before.
Even if an officer has been in trouble for driving poorly and crashes again into an innocent citizen.
And even if an officer festoons his Facebook page with images betraying a mindset 100 percent the opposite of what most Santa Feans expect from someone hired to protect and serve.
But in the wake of a national tragedy, a policy shift toward transparency seems more palatable for city leaders.
Sgt. Troy Baker, who also heads the local police union, came under fire—and under investigation—in February after an SFR story detailing the social media posts. Among them was a meme depicting a car running over stick figure people with the caption: "All Lives Splatter. No One Cares About Your Protest. Moral of the Story, Stay Off the Road."
That post in particular drew new fury and national attention after a reported Nazi sympathizer on Saturday drove into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one woman, at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Gallagher told the city's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday afternoon he had placed Baker on desk duty. The chief said he'd received a number of questions from the public about why the investigation, now in its sixth month, was taking so long.
The chief's spokesman later said Gallagher would announce whether and how Baker is disciplined when the investigation wraps up in a couple of weeks.
In June, SFR published a cover story about the city's secrecy policy on officer discipline. Deputy City Attorney Zach Shandler said officials' hands were tied because of the way he interprets the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), the state law that governs which documents are public and which aren't.
But as SFR pointed out in the cover story, several other New Mexico cities and counties—including Albuquerque, an otherwise black hole of secrecy—consider officer discipline to be public record and release it on request.
Shandler said there was likely no changing Santa Fe's policy unless state Attorney General Hector Balderas, whose job includes enforcing and interpreting IPRA, weighed in from on high and directed every city in the land to abandon cop secrecy.
Now, it looks like that may happen.
On Tuesday morning, as the Baker flap was gaining heat, SFR contacted Mayor Javier Gonzales and the city's eight city councilors to ask a series of questions about the secrecy policy.
Gonzales responded first, saying he was troubled by it. The mayor also said he planned to seek guidance on the issue from Balderas. The AG's office confirms a phone call from Gonzales to discuss the law surrounding secrecy on officer discipline and is awaiting a formal request from him for an advisory opinion.
That opinion would be binding for every police and sheriff's department in the state. Much hangs in the balance.
There is, of course, no telling where Balderas will come down on the issue. SFR interviewed him for the June cover story; when asked whether police discipline should be public record, he literally handed the phone to his subordinate, Deputy Attorney General Tania Maestas, who provided a frustrating answer: Cities that release the information are following the law, as are those that don't.
However, as we all wait for the attorney general to chime in, it looks like there's some momentum in Santa Fe to jump on the transparency train regardless of Balderas' stance.
Here are the three questions SFR asked Gonzales and the councilors:
— What is your position on the city's policy of not releasing discipline for city employees, specifically police officers?
— If you don't agree with the policy, what will you do to ensure Santa Fe residents get to see the results of investigations into alleged misconduct by city employees—and how the city disciplined those employees who are, of course, paid by residents?
— Would such a policy change require legislation? If so, would you sponsor it? Also, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas says he would issue guidance on the matter if a city or state official made a formal request. Will you ask him?
Two councilors, Peter Ives and Ron Trujillo did not respond by publication time. Councilor Mike Harris responded by email to say he would not be responding.
Here's what the rest of the city's elected leaders had to say:
Mayor Javier Gonzales (by email)
I think the policy severely limits our ability to provide accountability and transparency to the public – and that communicating more information on discipline is in the interest of the administration: we should be able to show the public how hard we are working to hold employees to a high standard and we should be able to show that we hold ourselves accountable to correct improper behavior.
The city's policy is based on guidance from the New Mexico Attorney General's office that exempts many different personnel documents. This is an issue I've discussed extensively with our City Manager and City Attorney, and I'm confident that if the Attorney General's interpretation changed, our policy would reflect that – giving us more flexibility to release details of actions we take to hold our employees accountable to a high standard.
We have reached out the Attorney General's office to initiate that conversation.
Councilor Signe Lindell (by email)
These issues are complex and three-dimensional. You are dealing with the constitutional rights of our employees in both their privacy and free speech as well as our own city policies which we must balance with the public's right to know. I would welcome some guidance from the New Mexico State Attorney General on these issues. But even after that guidance is given the city must decide for itself what its procedures and policies are. However I think this is a discussion worth having and policies worth reviewing.
Councilor Renee Villarreal (by email)
As a councilor, I would also like to be informed about disciplinary action and to see the results of investigations into alleged misconduct by city employees. So yes, at some point in the personnel and disciplinary process, I think this information should become public. I believe transparency could work in the departments favor—it could prove that there was no wrongdoing by the officer.
I don't know what it would take to make that policy change, but I would consider supporting it.
Councilor Joseph Maestas (by email)
My position on the city's policy of not releasing discipline is that personnel issues are complex with much liability exposure for the city. They must be handled in a deliberate, objective, and thorough manner. Although I have not researched personnel law and city policies, I feel that the allegations or scope of the investigation surrounding a personnel issue and the general outcome should be disclosed to the public. However, I don't feel the details regarding the investigation should be made public as allegations are just that, allegations. It would be irresponsible of the city to release those details especially if the employee is cleared of any wrongdoing. As a long time supervisor, I was trained to always keep conduct and performance issues separate as there are separate policies to address each issue.
Instead of advocating for full disclosure of all information regarding a review or investigation of misconduct, I would strengthen policies to hold employees accountable for their actions on and off the job with more formalized ethics and conduct training. As a former federal employee, I was held accountable for my conduct off the job including my social media content.
Councilor Carmichael Dominguez (by email)
Indeed, personnel issues are complex from the standpoint that employees have various constitutional rights, along with negotiated rights not to mention due process. Without knowing details about your examples, and keeping these rights in mind, it is difficult for me to comment on personnel issues.
I certainly would recommend that the governing body work with the Attorney General to provide guidance on how to balance the rights of employees with the pursuit of transparency. I believe a change in policy would be needed, however, I do not know at this moment which policy specifically would need to be amended. I think it's a discussion worth having and I certainly would not mind having some of that discussion with my colleagues.
Chris Rivera (via telephone interview)
I'm not sure how I come down on this. It's hard enough for a police officer to do their jobs on a daily basis and everybody lumps all police together, so any bad reports on police officers makes them all look the same. I don't think people need much pushing to dislike police officers.
I haven't seen any indication that the police administration is not being accountable to the public about their officers. They are doing investigations and following procedure and when they are done and they are able to release information, they do.
(Rivera also says he's not looking for the AG to tell the city whether it has to release the information or not; that should be up to the city. Santa Fe, he said, shouldn't be lumped in with Albuquerque and all their "problems all at once.")
SFR's Julie Ann Grimm, Matt Grubs and Aaron Cantú contributed to this report.