SFR Sues for Access

Newspaper files second court action seeking end to Santa Fe police discipline secrecy

Attorneys for SFR have filed a lawsuit in District Court over access to police records that the city of Santa Fe wants to keep secret.

The complaint filed Tuesday is the second recent attempt from the newspaper for court relief over the city's refusal to disclose records that show whether officers have been disciplined for misconduct. Daniel Yohalem and Katherine Murray argue on behalf of SFR in the court filing that those documents are subject to the state Inspection of Public Records Act and should be made available.

Last year, District Judge Greg Shaffer denied a petition for a writ of mandamus when SFR sought discipline records about Jeramie Bisagna, one of two officers who fired shots at Anthony Benavidez in 2017, killing him. Officials further complicated the case when City Attorney Erin McSherry wrote Yohalem and Murray after the ruling to explain the city should not have denied the request for records because, in fact, there were no documents responsive to the request.

On Feb. 1, SFR sought records regarding four different officers, all of whom have been the subject of citizen complaints and city insurance settlements. Two of the officers no longer work for the department. This time, the city attorney told SFR the city could not confirm or deny the existence of discipline records.

The new complaint focuses on a close reading of recent case law from the state Supreme Court in the matter brought by the Republican Party of New Mexico against the state Taxation and Revenue Department. In 2012, the high court held that governing bodies can only withhold documents when they explicitly match exceptions spelled out in IPRA. That ruling, the complaint argues, overruled earlier opinions that allowed for broad "implied exception(s)."

"Defendants unlawfully relied on case law which has been overruled and superseded by subsequent IPRA law," the complaint reads.

Santa Fe is not unique in refusing to turn over facts about police discipline, but other jurisdictions in New Mexico, including the Albuquerque Police Department, consider the information public.

When SFR first raised this issue and hit a roadblock with the city in 2017, then-Mayor Javier Gonzales asked Attorney General Hector Balderas to issue a formal opinion on how the city should treat discipline records for police. Balderas has so far declined to issue an opinion in the matter. David Carl, a spokesman for the office issued a statement late Tuesday: "The courts must weigh in on this complicated legal matter." Carl would not elaborate on the statement or say whether that means Balderas has decided not to issue an opinion or whether the attorney general will petition the court in the matter.

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