SCSD found unbiased

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The Socorro County Sheriff’s Department is in full compliance with a state law intended to stop profiling in police work, according to a study.

That June 2012 study, funded by the Berkeley Law Center for Human Rights in California and released through the New Mexico NAACP and Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant advocacy organization in Santa Fe, found that the Socorro County Sheriff’s Department was one of only a handful of law enforcement agencies in the state that were compliant with the Prohibition of Profiling Act of 2009.

“We are one of the strongest entities in compliance with the law,” said Undersheriff Lesman Torres at a Board of County Commissioners meeting on July 24.

The law was intended to ban profiling, or biased-based policing, which is defined as “any police initiated action (stopping, detaining, searching, etc.) that relies upon the selection of individuals based solely on a common trait or group” in the New Mexico Model Profiling Policy.

However, out of a total of 97 state agencies, fewer than a quarter had a compliant policy. In order to identify weak points and solutions to this, 30 were randomly selected to be evaluated on how well they complied to the standards set forth in the act. The average grade of those 30 was a D, while the Santa Fe Police Department and the Socorro County Sheriff’s Department received the only As.

Chief Deputy Shorty Vaiza attributed the high grade to each individual deputy deciding profiling was not the best way to conduct police work. He also said accusations of profiling against law enforcement agencies impairs the ability of prosecutors to get convictions on criminals.

“Our supervisors stressed that profiling is not the way to go,” Vaiza said. “We took it to heart.”

At the county commission meeting in July, Torres also thanked Adrian Nance, the county attorney, for his effective policy on biased-based policing. The main guideline for the department was the “golden rule,” Torres said.

The high mark for the sheriff’s department was the result of a system in which an agency was awarded points based on whether or not they fulfilled requirements with each of nine areas. These areas included having a biased-based policing policy with a list of all the protected classes, providing training for deputies about biased-based policing and having disciplinary procedures in place for deputies involved in profiling practices.

The law expanded the list of protected classes from race and ethnicity to include religion, sexual orientation and disability, among others. According to the law, officers cannot base investigations on any of these characteristics.

The sheriff’s department also received points in areas that the study identified as weaknesses for the other 30 evaluated agencies. The department makes documents available to the public, states time frames for investigating complaints and looks into complaints from anonymous sources, according to the press release.

The Socorro County Sheriff’s Department received a score of 10 out of 10 in this point system, which gave two points for agencies actually having a policy on biased-based policing.

The Socorro Police Department, however, did not provide researchers with their policy on biased-based policing. They are part of the 24 percent of agencies in the state that did not give their policies to the researchers. The Chieftain was unable to reach Assistant Chief Mike Winders for comment before press deadline.

The model policy states the best way to avoid profiling is for police officers to “be courteous and professional” when speaking to a person they have stopped and to use a safeguard called “reasonable suspicion.”

This means police cannot detain someone unless there is justification for doing so, according to a document on the website of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety’s Training and Recruiting Division.

An example of reasonable suspicion is if a building’s alarm goes off in the middle of the night and the only person in the building’s parking lot at that time is leaving the scene. Police can reasonably assume that man did the crime. Reasonable suspicion can lead to probable cause and that can then lead to an arrest.

El Defensor Chieftain intern Griffin Swartzell contributed to this report.