Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo is calling for further discussion surrounding Las Cruces Police Department policies following Monday's city council meeting.
“We have to be really serious, right, about the kind of tension that exists right now in our community, and how do we address that?” Bencomo said.
The council reviewed various policies as part of the settlement agreement between the city of Las Cruces and the Estate of Antonio Valenzuela. Valenzuela died after being restrained by a now former LCPD officer following a traffic stop last February.
The presentation noted the police department has already implemented the majority of the suggested policies. This includes a ban on all chokeholds and a requirement for bi-annual de-escalation training. Lieutenant Jeremy Story says the police department is working to offer more trainings in 2021.
“What New Mexico requires for in-service every two years is two hours of crisis intervention, and we currently provide eight hours,” Story said. “But in addition to that, some of the things that we've done to look at how we can improve that, because eight hours every two years, I think most of us would agree is probably not enough, we started to look at how do we actually incorporate de-escalation and make it part of the culture and also make it so that it can be applied under stress.”
Bencomo stressed more can be done to help residents feel safe. She says she wants to ensure that police and community relations are healthy.
“What I'm hearing from the presentation, is that we’re good, like this is great. The problem with that is that's not what I hear as a city councilor, right, from the community. It's not what I see,” Bencomo said. “For me, some of these things that were presented today, are the floor…They're the bare minimum.”
While the department says they are taking steps to support mental health, the presentation suggested requiring officers to submit to an annual mental health exam. According to City Attorney Jennifer Vega-Brown, the proposed policy would need to be vetted by the Public Safety Select Committee.
During the presentation, Mayor Ken Miyagishima and Councilor Bencomo clashed on the best way to move forward with police policy. While open to a future work session, the mayor suggested meeting privately with city councilors first due to liability concerns.
“What I don't want to see is a future lawyer, when they're suing the city, having a snippet of you saying something that is wrong. I'm sorry, I'll be real candid with you.” Miyagishima said. “Remember…prior to this, for three years, we settled nothing but law enforcement claims. And I'm telling you, I've seen that happen.”
Miyagishima also spoke about the respect he has for the officers of the LCPD.
“You know, I've been with the city so long that I think of our police officers, as my sons or daughters. I'm old enough to be their…dad,” Miyagishima said. “And it's like, ‘Hey, you know what, our guys don't do anything wrong. It's your guys. It's your department that does,’ but I know once in a while our people will mess up. But the fact remains is they put their lives on the line for us every day, every day. I mean, the stuff they deal with.”
Bencomo echoed those sentiments of respect while emphasizing the importance of looking further into current police policies.
“It is not a hard lift. It’s about accountability and people wanting to feel safe,” Bencomo said. “I think you want to feel safe in your community. I want to feel safe in my community, and we should all have that.”