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An Important First Step for Police Reform


Las Cruces residents joined with Americans throughout the nation during the summer of 2020 in protests demanding police reform.

While protests in other cities turned violent and destructive, ours were peaceful and respectful. Which isn’t surprising, given the generally positive relationship between police and our community. But that respect should not be confused for a lack of purpose or determination for real reform.

Some protesters were misguidedly calling for abolition of the police, but most were seeking a more thoughtful approach and a new understanding of when and how that force should be used.

The new crisis intervention units being established through the Las Cruces Fire Department are a terrific first step toward that new vision. Teams will include a firefighter who is a certified EMT and a mental health provider. A licensed clinical social worker will serve as coordinator.

They will be authorized to respond to five different types of calls that would have previously gone to police: welfare checks, intoxication, overdoses, suicide attempts and behavioral issues. Our emergency system handles an average of about 700 calls a month dealing with those issues. Transferring those duties away from police will free officers to focus on more serious crimes and reduce incidents where a call for help results in lethal force being used.

The city had planned to only have the teams available six days a week for part of the day, but is now considering doing more. It will be money well spent. If we’re going to make real change, it can’t be a part-time commitment.

But, this is only a first step. A critical piece to the puzzle is a crisis triage center that works efficiently with law enforcement to help people during a mental health emergency. And, that piece still doesn’t fit. 

Sheriff Kim Stewart has alleged that services at the center are unreliable, and has directed her officers to stop taking people to the facility until her department has an agreement with the private company operating it.

That needs to happen soon. While the crisis triage center can only admit those who are voluntarily seeking assistance, it is a valuable resource that needs to be included in the larger community effort to provide help and reduce harm.

The final piece of the reform puzzle is accountability. The national outrage in 2020 was sparked by cellphone videos of George Floyd’s horrific death in Minnesota. Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to more than 22 years in prison.

That same summer, we learned about the death of Antonio Valenzuela at the hands of Las Cruces Police Officer Christopher Smelser, who used a neck restraint hold that was allowed by LCPD then, but is not now. Smelser has been charged with second-degree murder, and is schedule to go on trial this month.

His trial will be a first, in a system where local law enforcement officers investigate their colleagues.

Legislation passed in 2021 makes it easier to sue officers for damages in civil court. But a seperate bill that would have established a uniform statewide system for criminal investigations of police-involved deaths failed, as did legislation for needed improvements to the State Law Enforcement Academy.

We are fortunate in Las Cruces to have a police force that is reflective of and respectful to our community. But improvements can be made through structural changes that shift priorities, provide greater support from professionals in related fields and demand accountability.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.