SANTA FE, N.M. (CN) – New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez says she may present legislation to grant law enforcement officers legal immunity for actions taken in the line of duty.
“I don’t believe that police officers should be under this constant threat of lawsuits that will often cause them to pause,” Martinez told the Albuquerque Journal. “If they’re following their training, there should be something that protects them.”
Law enforcement officers are already shielded from certain types of lawsuits under the doctrine of qualified immunity, which protects public officials from being sued for damages unless they violated “clearly established” law of which a reasonable official in their position would have known. Qualified immunity is intended to protect law enforcement and other civil servants from the fear of litigation in performing the discretionary functions entrusted to them.
But some New Mexicans fear the legislation Martinez seeks could shield police and other law enforcement from any form of lawsuit, and cut off legal recourse for the victims of genuine police misconduct.
“Standing up for officers who are using excessive force and violating the Constitution is exactly the wrong way to move,” Steven Robert Allen, public policy director for the New Mexico ACLU told the Albuquerque Journal. “I don’t know what problem the governor thinks she’s addressing, but she seems to be going in the wrong direction.”
The Albuquerque Police Department in particular has an inglorious history of excessive force incidents, including the fatal shooting of James Boyd, a homeless man, in 2014, and the shooting of 19-year-old Mary Hawkes, which led to an investigation of whether the department was altering body camera footage.
A multi-year Department of Justice investigation found a “culture of aggression” in the city’s police force and concluded officers “use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm … and where officers’ own conduct escalates situations and contributes to the need to use force.”
In a conversation with Courthouse News, Allen said “the problem from our perspective is that there hasn’t been enough accountability when it comes to use of excessive force – what is the problem that she’s trying to solve with this proposal?”
Allen speculated 2018 being an election year may be the real motivation.
“This governor has a history of using crime and public safety in a highly publicized way, especially in election years. This may be more of a political vehicle than serious legislation,” Allen said.
Martinez pitched the possible legislation as a protection for taxpayers, as well as law enforcement.
“This bill would protect citizens and law enforcement officers from the massive payouts that taxpayers are giving crooks and thieves who are hurt or injured by police officers who are doing their job,” Martinez told the Journal.
But Shannon L. Kennedy, an Albuquerque civil rights lawyer, wants to know why the governor would dehumanize the victims of police abuses as “crooks and thieves.”
“Does she want to place police officers above the law?” Kennedy asked.
Martinez’s office did not reply to a request for comment.