"ALL LIVES SPLATTER" the meme proclaimed, the block letters outlined in red. Below that: an SUV running over stick figures.
"Nobody cares about your protest," the caption continued. "Moral of the story ... stay off the road!"
That was a big deal when SFR reported that it appeared on Santa Fe Police Department Sgt. Troy Baker’s Facebook page. It became a bigger deal when an Ohio man ran over protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this month.
When that happened, nearly six months after the city began an internal affairs investigation into Baker’s social media posts, SFPD Chief Patrick Gallagher placed Baker on desk duty. Gallagher told the city’s Public Safety Committee he’d fielded questions about why the investigation was taking so long.
Tomorrow, Baker will retire. The internal affairs investigation into the 22-year veteran is not yet complete.
The police chief didn’t tell the committee how he answered questions about the department’s lengthy inquiry. As a matter of SFPD and city policy, though, he couldn’t have said anything other than whether the investigation was finished. No findings, no recommendations, no outcome. It’s fair to wonder whether that would have satisfied any of Gallagher’s inquisitors, let alone the public.
Baker’s decision to retire throws into question what, if anything, the public will ever learn about how the Police Department and the city view his actions (you can read many of Baker’s Facebook memes in the SFR story linked above). Gallagher is already on record saying Baker’s personal social media accounts don’t reflect his department’s feelings. “Emphatically, no,“ he told SFR in February, “Posts such as this have the potential to make officers’ jobs more difficult by eroding police-community relationships.”
Whether the department will ever tell the public if it felt Baker crossed the line of conduct unbecoming of an officer is unclear.
Last week, a department spokesman told SFR via text message that the chief would share the department’s final determination on Baker. Greg Gurule, the spokesman, says the department never intended to provide any other details related to the inquiry, only whether the department kept Baker on the force or fired him.
Attorneys for the city have repeatedly said they don’t believe the state’s open records law allows them to release disciplinary records—including internal affairs investigations—because they are protected personnel matters. Other law enforcement agencies, including the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, have a different interpretation of the law and allow the public to see how and whether they discipline officers after investigations and complaints. The mayor has asked city attorneys to draft a formal request for an opinion on the matter from the state attorney general.
City spokesman Matt Ross says Baker’s retirement doesn’t stop the internal affairs investigation.
“I do want to stress—and this applies to any situation—if there’s an IA investigation happening, that moves forward,” Ross tells SFR. “So, the end of employment doesn’t mean the end of accountability.”
While the city still doesn’t plan to release anything to the public, Ross says the results of the investigation would be reported to the state’s Law Enforcement Academy Board, which monitors officer misconduct investigations and has the power to strip cops of their law enforcement certification.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas chairs that board. At each public meeting, a packet is provided that is supposed to include the names of each officer who faces a possible disciplinary action, as well as the details of the allegations against her or him. That’s far more than the city of Santa Fe says it would ever release to the public, yet the city knows its disciplinary findings must be submitted to the LEA Board.
Ross couldn’t find someone to respond to a request this afternoon to clarify whether the legally mandated LEA Board process would offer enough guidance to the city to change its policy on releasing disciplinary records to the public.
Baker submitted his letter of resignation on Monday. Because the city’s contract with the police officers’ union—which Baker led as president for several years—allows officers to buy early retirement with accrued sick and vacation leave, Baker’s last day at what’s now a desk job will be Thursday. However, he’ll keep getting paid until his official retirement date at the end of May 2018.
Baker remains on the payroll, but statements by both the city manager and the mayor indicate the city is anxious to move past Baker’s controversial departure.
“While we can’t comment on the specifics of personnel matters, I can say that we are eager to put these issues behind us and focus on providing trustworthy, top-notch public service to every Santa Fean,” says city manager Brian Snyder.
“The memes were offensive and hurtful,” Mayor Javier Gonzales says, “and they don’t represent the police department I know, full of officers who are committed to serving all of our citizens. Now it’s time to close this chapter and move forward with policing this community in a way that’s focused on safety, people, and trust.”
That trust will have to be built without the city ever telling the public whether Baker was the kind of cop it would have kept on the force.