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Las Cruces Considers Hiring Police Auditor

Christopher Smelser

It’s been almost a year since the city of Las Cruces last had a police auditor. 

The city council recently discussed hiring a new company for that job. 

The Las Cruces City Council discussed the need for a new auditor to review police department operations. While not legally mandated, the city has historically had an auditor to look over internal affairs.

Councilor Johana Bencomo voiced concerns about the fact that ex-police officers often become auditors, raising questions about how impartial those audits tend to be.

“My concern is there is a widespread protection across this county,” Bencomo said. “Now, mistrust with policing isn’t something unique to Las Cruces.  This is happening all over the country. I mean, I’ll just come out and say it. My concern is that there is a widespread protection of law enforcement officers by other law enforcement officers.” 

City Attorney Jennifer Vega-Brown stressed the importance of looking at hard numbers as a way to eliminate bias. The city attorney also told the council that auditors would be wary of jeopardizing their licenses.

“Any professional auditor is going to have to maintain neutrality and to be unbiased,” Vega-Brown said. “To say that anybody is going to be biased toward a particular department, the check and balance in that is that if you have a certain number of complaints and certain types of complaints you can’t hide that. That’s just reporting of data. For example, if you have a number of use-of-force complaints for a particular area that’s just statistical data. It’s not an interpretation of that data.” 

The city attorney suggested that data gathered by the auditor could be the first step toward further consultations with other groups to fix any issues identified. 

Multiple members of the council spoke about the possibility of citizen involvement—mentioning the merits of a citizen review board. Bencomo also cited The Center for Policing Equity as an additional resource.

“This is an organization that we reach out to, I think,” Bencomo said. “Their goal is to build strong law enforcement partnerships and then pull in stakeholders in our community so that we can pinpoint what those inequities are.” 

This discussion comes as a critical eye is being turned toward The Las Cruces Police Department in the wake of Antonio Valenzuela’s death. Valenzuela died after being restrained by officer Christopher Smelser following a February traffic stop.

Smelser was relieved of his duties and the city ended the practice of allowing neck restraints.

Third Judicial District Attorney Mark D’Antonio had originally charged Smelser with manslaughter.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has taken over the prosecution and announced Smelser will now face an increased charge of second-degree murder.  Balderas recently told KRWG about key reforms he says are needed to improve policing statewide.

“For many years we have been underinvesting in making sure that officers have the best state of the art equipment and the world class training that our officers deserve,” Balderas said. “There is an extensive debate going on in this country right now, but I believe that we can focus both on community safety and officer safety as the same solution.”

The city is hoping a new audit will be part of that solution. Bencomo says this is an opportunity for the city to become stronger.

“I think an audit is really for the purpose of finding your gaps, finding your weakness...so that ultimately at the end of the day your work can be better. It can be stronger,” Bencomo said. “An intense, comprehensive audit can lead to a better working police force that has the trust of community members.” 

Bencomo also wants a citizen review board to review complaints against officers, but Mayor Ken Miyagishima is against that idea. 

“The citizen review board…is more of a reactionary process. I would rather be more proactive,” Miyagishima said. “So I’m recognizing that my colleagues and members of the public would like to see some type of accountability on behalf of our department, the city of Las Cruces, but also allow residents to participate. So I think you’re going to see in the coming weeks some discussion, similar to the Las Cruces Utilities Board, where I appoint three council members to that and we actively solicit four members of the public to join on this board.”

Miyagishima made those comments on KRWG-TV's Issues and Answers: Police Oversight.