State police chief: Make misconduct cases more accessible

Kassetas puts idea on agenda for Law Enforcement Academy Board's public meeting

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State Police Chief Pete Kassetas says he wants the state Law Enforcement Board to make it easier for the public to access the agency's investigations of alleged misconduct by police officers across the state.

Kassetas has placed the idea on the agenda for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board's public meeting, scheduled Dec. 12 in Albuquerque.

Currently, the Law Enforcement Board discusses complaints of officer misconduct in closed-door sessions out of the public eye. Board members publicly vote whether to take action against officers subject to complaints. But the board's nine members discuss disciplinary actions in closed-door executive sessions.

Those discussions leave the public without key details that could implicate or exonerate officers - who are named publicly during the voting sessions.

It can be rare for a person in Kassetas' position in law enforcement to speak out about cases of misconduct. But Kassetas has made television appearances about the issue, spreading the message that his profession will not tolerate cops breaking bad. In February, Lt. Gary Smith, a State Police lieutenant in Roswell, retired amid allegations that he put in for overtime he never worked.

"It's a sad end to his career but as the chief again I'm not losing any sleep for it. There's no room in my organization for theft or fraud dishonest officers, so get out," Kassetas said in an on-air interview with KRQE News 13 in August.

Smith faces seven fourth-degree felony charges in a pending state District Court trial in Roswell. Kassetas has said fellow officers reported the alleged overtime theft.

"What triggered it was my belief that we have to police our own profession," Kassetas said. "I'll terminate an officer and he or she is able to be hired on in another department almost seamlessly."

Such cases have caused embarrassment to a profession that cannot be above the law while at the same time upholding it, Kassetas said.

In an interview last month, Kassetas said lawyers for the state would have to determine what type of information the agency is able to make public and what it cannot legally publish.

"I think the lawyers have to figure out what's protected and what's not, but the core of it is transparency," Kassetas said.

He said wants to follow the model of the neighboring Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, whose functions are similar to the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board.

Four times annually, the Arizona board publishes on its website a so-called integrity bulletin, summarizing the board's investigatory findings into cases of officer misconduct across the state. The quarterly publication includes summaries of revocations, suspensions, mandatory revocations because of felonies, denials and voluntary relinquishment of law enforcement officers' certifications. The summaries do not name specific officers or agencies, but they do reference specific case numbers.

One revocation case published in the Arizona board's third integrity bulletin in 2017, which summarizes board actions from meetings in July, August and September, looks like this: "A deputy was in the hiring process with an agency and took a pre-hire polygraph examination. The polygrapher concluded that the deputy employed countermeasures in order to affect the outcome of the test. When questioned, the deputy first denied and then eventually admitted to doing so in order to influence the outcome of the polygraph test."

The agency also publishes findings into cases in which it takes no actions against an officer. The brief summaries look like this: "An officer engaged in rude and defamatory comments to the female employee within view of a citizen and fellow employees."

Kassetas believes New Mexico's statewide board, as well as individual agencies, should take advantage of the internet by making internal law enforcement workings more accessible -- and not just about cases of officer misconduct. Kassetas said he sees no reason why internal policies of police departments should shouldn't be posted online. Currently, journalists and citizens must frequently request such documents through the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act, often called by its abbreviated name, IPRA.

"Why do we make journalists or the public IPRA the pursuit policy?" Kassetas said. "It should be there."

He said law enforcement agencies making more information available online will save their public-records custodians time because they would not have to process Inspection of Public Records Act requests.

"We just sort of make it hard for people to find out about it..." Kassetas said. "I talk about it, but it's really not a sexy topic. So until I really put it out on the forefront, it won't get any traction."

Justin Horwath can be reached at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexica­n.com.

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