Local leaders say they are finally ready “to protect survivors of domestic violence…and to hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable,” according to a Santa Fe County press release. It is, after all, “Domestic Violence Awareness Month.”
What’s the plan? On Oct. 7, politicians will join police, prosecutors and victims’ advocates for a press conference. Some of those people will then attend a 6:30 pm meeting in the County Commission chambers to discuss “closing the gaps” in the system.
In recent months, SFR has detailed those gaps: How police fail to apprehend abusers; how, despite laws banning even low-level offenders from owning firearms, many keep their guns and go on to threaten or shoot their victims; and how judges hand down light sentences to dangerous repeat offenders.
The publicity push comes at a time when law enforcement and social workers in the field have seen the problem grow more severe with arsons, beatings, disembowelments and shootings.
It’s not entirely fair to portray the government response as all meetings and photo-ops. Some steps have been more concrete.
Santa Fe Mayor David Coss says SFR’s articles on domestic violence “scared the heck out of me.” Coss wants City Council support for an excise tax increase on alcohol, with some money earmarked toward domestic violence programs. He would also like to find grant funding for a program in place in some East Coast cities in which social workers accompany police on domestic violence calls to start the counseling process immediately.
County Sheriff Greg Solano says SFR “brought to light some gaps in the Sheriff’s Office.” As a result, Solano wrote a memo requiring more rigorous pursuit and arrest of domestic violence suspects. This is already required by law, but “we weren’t being as thorough as we could be,” Solano says. Now, “either patrol officers have to apply for [an arrest] warrant immediately or they have to call in a detective to apply for the warrant.” He says First Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco was “very receptive” to his department’s new policies.
Pacheco previously told SFR she had increased the number of lawyers assigned to misdemeanor domestic violence crimes, hopefully intervening in such cases before the danger escalates. Pacheco also said prosecutors will “strike faster” and hold preliminary hearings for every felony domestic violence case within 10 days to try to prevent victims from recanting their allegations to reconcile with their abusers.
The Oct. 7 press conference also will introduce Jenna Yanez, a lawyer hired to lead a pilot “court watch” program. Santa Fe Domestic and Sexual Violence Liaison Carol Horwitz won a $31,000 grant to fund Yanez’ position, intended to “provide feedback” to judges—and let them know their decisions are being watched. Victims’ advocates have criticized a lack of training and attention by some local judges.
First Judicial District Judge Michael Vigil was himself scrutinized after he sentenced one repeat offender to probation after the man, Steve Romero, beat his pregnant girlfriend. Later, Vigil met with Horwitz to discuss the sentence. According to her notes of the meeting posted online, “[T]he victim was not necessarily intimidated by [Romero, although she] understood that she could be killed by him.” Also, the victim’s mother supported the request for probation and, in Vigil’s estimation, “Romero seemed like he was sincere about change. We will know very shortly.”
Advocates also have complained that scheduled cases were not getting heard in the wake of the still-unexplained firing of Domestic Relations Hearing Officer Margaret Kegel. At the time, Vigil characterized the cancelled cases as an administrative error, not “a lack of support for that program.”
New Mexico Domestic Violence Czar Sharon Pino says filling Kegel’s position quickly was “not as important as filling it with someone who is qualified. If you don’t have someone in that position who really knows and understands domestic violence, that is very dangerous—almost more dangerous than having nobody at all.”
Within the last few weeks, judges hired a new hearings officer, Barbara Ann Michael. According to the State Bar of New Mexico directory, Michael practices mainly administrative, business and “divorce/family” law; her legal interests include “new trust account rules, malpractice risk assessment, [and] the role of mediation in litigation and arbitration.” She did not return SFR’s messages by press time.