‘Let People Breathe’

Public defenders and supporters march to Capitol in support of BLM, law enforcement reform

Public defenders across the state demonstrated this afternoon in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and law enforcement reform.

In Santa Fe, about 30 public defenders and supporters marched from the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender (LOPD) to the Roundhouse. The group walked with signs, matching shirts, a drum and chants that have become familiar around the Capitol in the last two weeks as protests erupted after the murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a police officer.

The nationwide protest was organized by Public Defenders for Racial Justice.

The lawyers from LOPD have a list of reforms they want made around the state: the demilitarization of police departments, end of no-knock warrants, a statewide database of police officers' with misconduct charges, mandatory de-escalation requirements for officers and laws that would dismiss felonies when body-worn cameras aren't used.

The list of policy changes, read aloud by Kim Chavez Cook, a public defender in the appellate division, also included banning chokeholds and strangleholds unless absolutely necessary and mandating that officers must step in to stop their colleagues from using excessive force.

"Let people breathe!" Cook said, which was met by cheers and drum beats from the protesters. "There must be consequences for using force but also allowing it to happen."

Ibukun Adepoju, a public defender covering Portales, Hobbs and Clovis, led the gathered protesters in chanting the names of people killed by police officers for eight minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd's neck.

Adepoju came to Santa Fe from eastern New Mexico in order to speak up for the more rural and underrepresented parts of the state.

"We fight injustice every day," Adepoju said. "Today we are here to fight for the lives of the people whose lives have been lost to ruthless police brutality."

Adepoju knew long before her six years as a public defender and Floyd's death that law enforcement needed to be reformed. She told SFR it's part of the reason she went to work for the public defenders' office. But she also sees a light at the end of the tunnel: the possibility that this sudden civil rights movement could change things.

"Considering this has been the largest civil rights movement in probably the history of America, I think there will be some change," Adepoju said. "It won't be perfect but it will be another step in the right direction."

Cook tells SFR she has seen a much higher trend of use of force and injuries by police, harsher charges and sentences and weaker plea offers for her nonwhite versus white clients.

A statement released by Bennett J. Baur, the chief public defender at LOPD, backs up Cook's personal experience.

"In New Mexico, about 2 percent of residents are black, yet black people are incarcerated at a rate 6.4 times that of whites," the statement reads. "They receive longer sentences than those of other races for the same charge. Hispanics, about 49 percent of New Mexicans, are incarcerated at a rate higher than the national average and double that of whites, who make up about 37 percent of the population. Incarceration data for Native Americans in the state is difficult to even find."

The Sentencing Project also found major disparities between black, Hispanic and white incarceration in New Mexico.

Cook says public defenders are part of a criminal justice system tainted with racism. But she hopes the group will combine the work they already do for the indigent people of New Mexico with policy change at the state level. Cook says there have been some wins for civil rights recently, including a client that had a charge of resisting an officer reversed after he was arrested when he was filming a police officer. In another case, Cook says she reversed a battery of an officer conviction against a mother who was trying to stop the police from shooting her schizophrenic son.

"Things like that we can do are tangible, but none of that prevents it from happening in the future," Cook says. "Ideally we wish that it would, that it would have a deterrent effect. But we find that it rarely does."

Cook hopes that the group's policy goals, such as the statewide police misconduct database, will keep violent officers from getting fired at one agency and then hopping to the one in the next county over.

Charlie Agoos, a public defender in the appeals court, wants law enforcement reform to look at the root causes of crime as well as where local, state and federal dollars are going.

"I think George Floyd himself, he was arrested and murdered because he didn't have enough money to buy whatever he needed from the store," Agoos told the gathering on Monday. "Here in New Mexico we fund so much law enforcement that we're not able to fund our schools, our healthcare. We also receive all these…federal grants that come in from the DEA, the War on Drugs…to militarize our police when we could instead be using that money to help the people in our community and doing the things that really prevent crime."

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