THURS: Residents Rank Priorities For Next Police Chief, Navajo Casinos Announce Layoffs, + More

Dec 31, 2020

Residents Rank Priorities For Next Albuquerque Police ChiefAssociated Press

The results of a recent online survey of some Albuquerque residents show reducing violent crime and police reforms should be among the top priorities for the city's next police chief.

The city released the results Wednesday, saying nearly 2,300 responses were submitted. The city also made public a list of the 39 people who have submitted applications for the position.

The city has held more than 40 community meetings over the last two months focused on the search and will be identifying those candidates most in sync with the community's priorities as the selection process continues.

According to the city, communication, leadership by example and accountability were the attributes most valued by the survey respondents.

Those qualifications considered as very important by a majority of respondents included experience with reducing use of force and procedural justice, crisis management and knowledge of crime prevention and law enforcement strategies.

The top priorities identified by respondents included reducing violent crime, protecting civil rights and improved training for officers.

City officials said they will work with community advocates, law enforcement professionals and business leaders to identify the applicants with the qualities needed to move forward for consideration.

Albuquerque was put in the spotlight earlier this year when President Donald Trump announced it was one of several cities in the U.S. where federal agents would be sent to help combat crime. For years, violent crime, vehicle thefts and shootings had plagued the city.

The police department this week highlighted its efforts to curb property crime, saying there has been a reduction in auto theft of 39% between 2017 and 2019. It also announced earlier this month that it was adding staff to its homicide unit.

Police officials also touted a recent report released by the Major Cities Chiefs Association that showed Albuquerque was one of only two cities that did not experience a spike in violent crime during the coronavirus pandemic.

Aside from addressing crime, the next chief will have to deal with court mandated reforms and a federal monitor who has been tracking the effort.

State Reports 41 More COVID Deaths On Last Day Of 2020Associated Press

New Mexico health officials on Thursday reported an additional 1,684 confirmed COVID-19 infections, pushing the statewide total since the pandemic began to 142,864.

Another 41 deaths were reported, leaving the state to finish the year with 2,477 people who succumbed to the virus.

State officials continued to encourage people to get tested and to sign up for a vaccination, as planning is underway for distribution once more doses become available.

“I’m as glad to say goodbye to 2020 as anybody,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a tweet. “But please be careful celebrating tonight. COVID hasn’t gone anywhere. Don’t risk your health — or your neighbor’s health.”

Traditional New Year's celebrations around the state, such as the annual “Chile Drop" in Las Cruces, were taking place virtually.


Navajo Nation Casinos To Lay Off More Than 1,100 – Associated Press

Casinos run by the Navajo Nation plan to temporarily lay off more than 1,100 workers on New Year's Day because of prolonged closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The tribe's Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise announced the decision Thursday night, saying it was left with no choice but to move ahead with the layoffs because of lack of revenue caused by the closures.

The tribe operates four casinos in Arizona and New Mexico and together they employ more than 1,200 people, including more than 775 tribal members. The Gaming Enterprise plans to keep 165 employees on the payroll to ensure essential functions are maintained at the casinos.

Officials had repeatedly warned that layoffs would become necessary if the casinos weren't allowed to reopen at least with limited capacity.

But officials also warned Thursday that permanent closure of the entire operation is possible by the end of January if casinos are not allowed to reopen or if more funding isn't allocated to keep the operation running. The tribe allocated nearly $25 million in federal virus relief funding to the casino operation in August but that money has run out.

The tribe invested $460 million in the casinos and that would be lost if they closed. Closure would also lead to ongoing yearly losses of about $220 million in revenue and economic activity, Parrish said. He said he believes it's possible to safely reopen with reduced capacity even amid the pandemic.

Albuquerque Spends All $150M In Federal Virus Relief AidAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

City officials in Albuquerque have said they spent all of the coronavirus relief aid the city received in April as new federal legislation extended the time local governments are able to use the funding.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Wednesday that city finance officials say the municipal government has spent or otherwise applied all $150 million in relief aid in an effort to meet the original Dec. 30 spending deadline.

Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta said most of the money went to paying first responders.

In addition to personnel, the city used the money on direct economic relief, including $11.2 million for business grants and $2.5 million in emergency grants for vulnerable residents.

The money helped the city avoid employee cuts and service reductions and expand operations, including eviction prevention, meal delivery for homebound seniors and operating costs associated with increased use of city parks.

The coronavirus relief bill restricted how local governments could spend the money, requiring that it go only to expenditures related to COVID-19 that were not already included in budgets before March 27.

While the city has not completed the account reconciliation outlining all final spending from the relief law, other planned expenditures included mobile Wi-Fi units, assistance for organizations helping domestic violence survivors, grants for artists and a new projector for the city's emergency operations center.

Immigrants Get Help From States, Cheer Inclusion In US Bill - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report For America

Immigrant taxpayers and their families are celebrating a federal relief package that includes spouses and children who are U.S. citizens.

Checks sent out in the spring didn't go to families if one spouse was an immigrant in the country illegally, even if the other was a U.S. citizen or legal resident. About 5 million Americans were left out that way.

But even in the new bill, some 2.2 million U.S. citizen children won't receive a check because they live in immigrant households. In Democratic-controlled areas, officials have targeted rent relief and direct payments to those families.

New Mexico lawmakers are unique in sending federal money directly to immigrants.

New Mexico's effort is unique because it paid applicants through direct deposit, instead of relying on community groups to distribute the funds, like California and Vermont.

Some 15,000 New Mexico residents have received about $465 each from a $5 million fund created by the Legislature.

It's not just immigrants benefiting. The only requirements for the money are being a state resident and having not received a federal check in April, which includes homeless and elderly Americans who didn't get a check because of IRS rules.

After getting about four times the number of applicants that the fund could support, state officials reduced the maximum amount and prioritized the lowest-income households.

The fund faced no resistance from minority Republicans in the New Mexico House, but some of them voted against the entire bill.

Cities also have used federal funds for direct payments to immigrants.

Angelica Rodriguez and her husband are restaurant cooks in Santa Fe and had their hours cut in half. But they have been able to catch up on rent thanks to the city's pandemic relief: a $750 payment last month and $1,500 this month.

She's a member of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Latino-focused group that advocated for the inclusion of immigrants in state relief efforts. It's also educated immigrants about not worrying that pandemic assistance will count against them in immigration applications, which ask about public aid like food stamps.

Despite the city payments, Rodriguez's family still can't afford to fix a broken washing machine and couldn't splurge on Christmas presents this year. She and her husband are in the country without permission while their three children are U.S. citizens.

Catron County Allowed To Relax Virus Restrictions Associated Press

The state of New Mexico Wednesday announced that one of New Mexico's 33 counties — Catron County — saw enough improvement in its per-capita daily incidence of new COVID-19 cases and its average test positivity rate to relax some of the public health regulations under the state’s color-coded risk system.

Officials said more than two dozen counties saw improvements in at least one of the two categories while 21 saw improvements in both metrics.

State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said during a briefing Wednesday that she feels positive so far about the rollout of vaccinations in New Mexico to frontline health care workers and staff and residents at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

In all, the state has ordered and received more than 49,600 doses and 83% of those already have been distributed.

Collins also encouraged people to register online if they're interested in receiving the vaccination when it becomes more widely available. She reported that 160,000 people had signed up within an eight-day period.

While the state is still in the planning stages for later phases of distribution, she said the registrations would help as the state prioritizes which groups come next.

Businesses Sue Over New Mexico Coronavirus RestrictionsSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A group of businesses has sued in federal court to try to end New Mexico's COVID-19 public health order.

They claim that Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials have imposed arbitrary and unnecessary rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It's the latest legal challenge to the governor's public health orders. Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court backed her authority to restrict activities during the pandemic.

The lawsuit this week asks the U.S. District Court to override the governor's executive orders and limit any future public health orders to "an extremely limited period of time" unless authorized by state lawmakers. It also asks that the plaintiffs be compensated for lost income during the lockdowns.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the plaintiffs include three Albuquerque businesses, a Silver City restaurant and a number of individuals.

A spokesman for the state Health Department called it the worst pandemic in a century and said the lawsuit "appears to be out of step with these realities."

State health officials on Wednesday reported 1,316 new COVID-19 cases pushing the total to more than 141,000 since the pandemic began.

There were also 33 additional deaths. The total number of COVID-related deaths among New Mexicans is now 2,436.

The pandemic has had far-reaching social and economic consequences, with many small businesses forced to close for good and increased unemployment.

The state Legislature recently allocated previously unspent federal relief money for some residents. The state Human Services Department announced Tuesday that it has received more than $5 million in federal funding that will pay for $300 one-time payments for low-income households that are behind at least one month on their utility bills.

Holiday Travel Down At New Mexico's Largest Airport - Associated Press

Officials at New Mexico's largest airport say that 72% fewer people passed through Albuquerque International Sunport this Christmas week than they did last year. 

Airport spokesman Jonathan Small said Wednesday that officials saw around 30,000 passengers pass through from Dec. 20 to 26 on their way to holiday destinations. 

The TSA has reported that air travel nationwide is down as well amid the coronavirus pandemic. More than 900,000 people around the country flew Dec. 22 to holiday destinations compared with more than 1.9 million on the same date last year.

US Park Service Releases Video Involving Tasing Of Visitor - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The National Park Service says a man who was tased during a confrontation with a park ranger in New Mexico was seen climbing on and among petroglyph cliff features off-trail.

The federal agency late Tuesday released more details and video of the interaction between the ranger and Darrell House, saying an investigation is ongoing.

The video shows the ranger telling House that Native American tribes from the area consider Petroglyph National Monument as sacred and that visitors are supposed to stay on designated trails to preserve the cultural resources and allow the desert vegetation to recover.

The video also shows House, who identified himself as Navajo and Oneida, giving the ranger a fake name and trying to walk away.

Video taken by House showed the ranger asking for his identification. House told the ranger that he was back on the trail and didn't need to provide his ID.

The ranger told House he was refusing a lawful order and would have to be detained until he could be identified. House again walked away as the ranger told him to stop. House picked up his dog in one hand and lifted up his cellphone in the other and began yelling for help as he was tased.

Video posted by House on social media shows him screaming and rolling on the ground. The ranger repeatedly asks for him to put his hands behind his back as House raises his hands and at times folds them in front of his chest while still calling for help.

House was cited for interfering with agency functions, concealing his identity and being off-trail. House did not return messages from The Associated Press. In his social media posts, he said he goes to the monument to pray and meditate.

The case has been referred to the National Park Service's internal affairs unit. The investigation will include a review of the body camera video, the video posted on social media as well as interviews with officers, those involved and any other witnesses.

New Mexico Judge Says Public School Building Funding Unfair Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A New Mexico judge has ruled that the state's system for funding the construction of buildings in public school districts is unconstitutional and ordered officials to devise a fair system.

The ruling by 11th Judicial District Court Judge Louis E. DePauli Jr. on Tuesday said the funding system was not properly equitable.

Democratic state Rep. Patty Lundstrom says lawmakers should change the system in the upcoming 60-day legislative session. 

Democratic state Sen. Mimi Stewart believes that some parts of the judge's ruling don't accurately describe the state's capital outlay funding and that the state should appeal the order.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Stewart was not specific as to what inaccuracies she was referring to.

DePauli said in his report that the current system makes "property-poor" districts pay more in taxes but receive less.

Former Police Officer Sentenced In Vehicular Homicide CaseRoswell Daily Record, Associated Press

A former police officer in southern New Mexico has been sentenced to more than a decade behind bars for his involvement in a deadly crash.

Luke Maxwell Towner had pleaded guilty in October to charges that include vehicular homicide and driving under the influence.

The Roswell Daily Record reports that the 31-year-old Tularosa resident was sentenced earlier this month. Court documents say Towner was speeding when he ran into another vehicle at an intersection in Roswell last December.

Doug Annis was in the back seat of the other vehicle and died. Two others were injured in the wreck.

Towner, who is now 31, told authorities he had been drinking whiskey earlier that night and was responsible for the wreck, court documents state.

Towner served as a police officer in Alamogordo from 2013 to 2016, city officials said.