Update: Since this commentary was posted, a witness told the Las Cruces Sun-News that the slain man was actually running from police when he was shot. Another witness told KDBC Channel 4 in El Paso that it appeared the man was shot while running away. Las Cruces police deny that version.
A police review committee does not need the city’s permission. In fact, it would be more effective and credible without the city’s blessing.
Rio Grande Digital
The police shooting on Saturday that killed a Las Cruces man should revive the long-discussed idea of establishing a citizens’ review committee to look into cases where police use deadly or excessive force against people in the community.
In this case, with very little information at this early stage of the investigation, it appears the shooting of Robert Montes, 37, was justified. Montes, after all, allegedly shot at the police, who shot back in self-defense.
The unidentified police officers who killed Montes are on paid leave, as is standard procedure. The investigation so far has been handled by police. The incident will be reviewed by a task force made up entirely of fellow police. As usually happens, the task force probably will give its findings to the district attorney’s office, which probably will announce that the shooting was justified. The district attorney and police work hand-in-hand.
Police shootings are rare in Las Cruces. Even more rare are cases in which there are questions about whether shootings are justified. But such cases have occurred. Compared to other places, the police in Las Cruces seem to be professional and conscientious — according to the police, that is. And it’s probably true.
What’s missing is an independent outside review of any case where a police officer might be suspected of improper conduct. And even in cases where there is no suspicion of improper conduct but a possibility of it, someone outside of law enforcement needs to take a very close look.
The idea of an independent community-based review panel has been proposed several times over the years, but the idea was dropped when the city determined such a review was unnecessary.
The fact is that the people of Las Cruces could establish a police review committee if they want to. They don’t need the city’s permission. They don’t need the city to agree to it. In fact, such a committee would be much stronger and more credible without the city’s blessing. It’s simply a matter of giving the city notice that this incident will be reviewed by the community.
If Las Cruces municipal government operates with an acceptable level of transparency, any and all relevant information about this shooting will be public anyway. Witnesses to the shooting are free to discuss it — or not discuss it — with such a committee. But it’s almost a certainty that these witnesses have been or will be questioned by police, and the police should make any and all details of those interrogations available to the public.
What is needed is for a community leader to come forward, identify a diverse cross-section of the community to serve on the committee, and appoint the members, who then would be free to go to work. It should be a large committee with 20 members or more.
In the absence of anyone else to organize this idea to more forward, you can easily contact me, and I will put you in touch with each other and try to help get it off the ground.
The committee should drill as deep as possible for information. If it is stonewalled by the police or the government, it should use political pressure to get access to all the information.
After reviewing all the facts of a case, the committee should write a report — not to the city government, but to the real city — to the people. In any case where all members of the committee don’t agree on the committee’s conclusions, dissenting members would be free to write their own report — so there could be a majority report and a minority report.
Look at it as an opportunity for the taxpayers of Las Cruces to spot-check the work of the police. This idea has been talked about for years. It’s time to see whether Las Cruces has the will to do it.
Mike Scanlon is editor and publisher of Rio Grande Digital. Opposing viewpoints are always welcome.