Police: New Mexico justice system is broken, changes needed

Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
New Mexico State Police Pete Kassetas discusses a recent traffic stop in San Juan County that ended with the armed suspect dead and a state police officer wounded during a news conference in Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico's top law enforcement officer said Friday the state's criminal justice system is broken, overtasked and strained by a lack of resources.

State Police Chief Pete Kassetas' comments came as he and San Juan County authorities provided an update on a recent traffic stop in Farmington in which police shot and killed a suspect after he pulled a revolver from his waistband and opened fire.

One of the rounds wounded a state police officer when it struck his badge and sent shrapnel flying.

Kassetas described the case of 26-year-old William Wilson as a classic example of the problems facing New Mexico's justice system. He outlined Wilson's criminal history, which stretched back several years and included numerous charges and a host of probation violations, and noted that he had been arrested 17 times and was a self-admitted gang member.

Authorities say Wilson was released from prison in May to the custody of the county jail due to a pending case involving aggravated burglary, larceny and firearm charges. Court records show he was released from the jail just weeks before the shooting after being fitted with an ankle monitor.

"I want to make it clear I'm not blaming anybody in the criminal justice system other than the individual that pulled the trigger," Kassetas told reporters. "You shoot at police officers, the end result is they're going to shoot back and use deadly force to protect themselves. That's what we had happen here."

But the police chief said Wilson's case is one of many that have highlighted problems with the state's criminal justice system. He said New Mexico needs a more comprehensive statewide risk assessment tool that judges and prosecutors can use to determine whether a defendant presents enough of a danger to keep them in custody pending trial.

He and others said that assessment should take into consideration previous arrests, not just convictions.

Kassetas and San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen acknowledged the effort to reform the bail system through a constitutional amendment that won overwhelming support from New Mexico voters during the last general election.

Left to right, New Mexico State Police Pete Kassetas, San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen and Torrance County Sheriff Heath White discuss criminal justice reforms during a news conference in Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

"It feels like a social experiment with what's going on," Kassetas said. "It's not working and we need to figure out how to drive crime down in New Mexico."

Christesen suggested the amendment has had the opposite effect of what was intended and that there's more pressure on prosecutors and the courts as the requirements call for more hearings and more evidence before a judge can decide whether to hold someone.

Law enforcement officials said they are planning more meetings with top judicial officials, district attorneys and others in the coming months.

In the Farmington case, authorities have reviewed footage from the state police officer's body camera that shows the officer having a conversation with Wilson before deciding to handcuff him with his hands in front of his body. During the conversation, police said Wilson appeared nervous and told the officer he just got out of prison and didn't want to go back.

A moment after the officer cuffs Wilson, he steps out of the frame and gunfire erupts. Police say Wilson fired anywhere between one and four rounds before the state police officer and a San Juan County deputy returned fire.

Authorities on Friday identified the officer as Dwayne Simpson and the deputy as Sara Howard. Both had been with their departments for about two years.

Simpson fired 7 rounds and Howard fired four times. Authorities did not say how many times Wilson was hit.

The district attorney's office is still reviewing the case and authorities plan to release footage of the traffic stop once the investigation is complete.


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