Task Force Blues

City of Santa Fe’s answer to demands for police accountability is moving slowly; SFR finally gets (bad) Court of Appeals ruling in cop secrecy lawsuit

The City of Santa Fe’s much-publicized Community Health and Safety Task Force continues to cough and sputter due, in part, to the police department’s substandard reporting practices and refusal to share complete sets of records.

That was the highlight of a Wednesday evening quarterly report from Renee Villarreal and Chris Rivera, the two city councilors who co-chair the task force, to the governing body.  Notably, the task force reports, SFPD doesn’t track whether disciplinary actions come as a result of external or internal complaints.

The task force has a broad mandate to assess the policies and practices of city health and safety services to address misconduct. It was convened in 2020 in the wake of nationwide racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by former police officer Derek Chauvin. Locally, complaints against Santa Fe Police Department officers had spiked for a variety of alleged infractions, from sexual assault and excessive force to rude behavior and delayed response times.

At the end of January, the task force had requested information from the Community Health and Safety Department, the Santa Fe Police Department and the Santa Fe Fire Department about Internal Affairs policies, complaint mechanisms and the use of “restorative responses”' that focus on mediating conflict instead of punishing offenders.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, Villarreal noted that the task force received only partial responses that didn’t address discipline procedures or information on how the police department handles restorative responses to residents’ complaints.

SFR feels the task force’s pain.

In a wild coincidence, Wednesday also saw a long-awaited decision from the state Court of Appeals in SFR’s lawsuit against the City of Santa Fe over its employee discipline secrecy policy.

The short of it: Appeals Court Judge Kristina Bogardus (with Judge Katherine Wray and retired judge Michael Bustamante concurring) punted the fundamental question at the heart of this newspaper’s 2019 lawsuit. We’d like to know whether our state courts believe that when the city disciplines one of its employees—police officers, in particular, in this case—for a policy violation, the public whose tax dollars pay those employees’ salaries should get to know about it.

Mayor Alan Webber, his predecessors and public employee labor unions believe they shouldn’t; SFR believes they should.

We received a mixed ruling from First Judicial District Court Judge Bryan Biedscheid on the question in October 2020. SFR appealed Biedscheid’s ruling that allowed the city to keep certain records under wraps. The city cross-appealed, asking the Court of Appeals to claw back the attorneys fees Biedscheid had awarded to our legal team.

In her written memorandum and opinion, Bogardus declined to address the merits of SFR’s argument in any way. Instead, the judge wrote that the Appeals Court is bound by the very state Supreme Court precedent we are seeking to overturn—the one that allows local and state governments some wiggle room on whether to release the fact of employee discipline under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.

Bogardus also declined to toss the case back to the District Court or to give Webber’s administration a win on the question of attorneys’ fees, as the city had asked.

Daniel Yohalem who, along with Katherine Murray represents SFR in the case, says of the Appeals Court ruling:

“Disappointing, but not surprising, given the limited authority our Court of Appeals takes for itself.”

The case has always seemed destined for the state Supreme Court. SFR plans to seek exactly that scenario after Wednesday’s order—Yohalem and Murray will soon begin work on a petition asking the high court to hear the case on its merits and settle this vital, though thorny, question once and for all.

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