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Were Jail Inmates Victims Of Excessive Force?

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There’s been a lot of focus lately both locally and nationally on how police officers use force—sometimes deadly force—against people.

Now, New Mexico’s largest jail is back in the headlines after it was revealed that two inmates may have been the victims of excessive use of force.

The Bernalillo county jail is one of the 40 largest jails in the nation and Jeff Proctor says it’s expensive to run. He’s with the Justice Project, a reporting effort focusing on the criminal justice system in New Mexico published by New Mexico In Depth. He spoke with KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel. 

KUNM: What do we know happened with these two inmates at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center?

Proctor: We have two separate incidents. One was from last September. It involved a female inmate who was in one of the solitary confinement areas of the jail. The guards used pepper spray and a taser against her. And that’s really all we know about that particular incident. The second took place just a couple of months ago and it was an inmate who was going down to the medical area of the jail. One of the corrections officers does a leg sweep on the guy and sort of shows him to the ground face and head first.

KUNM: The Albuquerque Journal published one video of the incident with the male inmate. Does that video add any new information to your reporting?

Proctor: Other than being able to see a portion of the incident itself, it doesn't add anything new. But always being able to see any use of force in the criminal justice system does add some degree of understanding and context to something.

KUNM: Why didn’t you have access to the videos of these two incidents for your reporting? You’ve been working on this story for weeks.

Proctor: I originally filed a public records request with the county on June 28. Last week, as I was preparing to write the story I was told to come and pick up the videos and all the reports associated with these two incidents. When I showed up at the county attorney’s office the following day, I was told that the county had changed its mind.

KUNM: Can they do that?

Proctor: Certainly free-thinking beings can change their minds. In this particular instance, I wasn’t given an explanation in writing as to why I wasn’t going to get the records that they had originally agreed to release to me.

KUNM: Which is what they’re required to do under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act, right?

Proctor: That’s right. If they are going to deny release of what are clearly public records, they have to explain in writing why they are doing so. Later that afternoon I did get a written response from them formally denying my request. And they cited an exception to that transparency law that you just mentioned that, in fact, does not exist.

KUNM: So, what does it mean when these public records aren’t provided? Is the county following the state’s public records laws?

Proctor: Certainly they’re not following the law in our view. And they are not following the law in the view of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. And ultimately what happens here is the people who pay for that operation, to incarcerate these folks pre-trial, don’t get the opportunity to see for themselves and judge whether corrections officers are acting either within the law or within the county’s policies.

KUNM: What other questions remain unanswered at this point?

Proctor: We don’t know anything about the corrections officers or the supervisors who were involved. Do they have a history of this kind of behavior? We don’t have any sense at all of the accountability mechanisms within the jail and how they are working, at least as it relates to these two incidents.

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.
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