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New Mexico revamps training amid police shootings

Thursday - 3/27/2014, 3:21pm  ET

RUSSELL CONTRERAS
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Faced with a rash of questionable police shootings across New Mexico, the state's main law enforcement academy has changed its cadet curriculum aimed at helping reduce deadly force encounters between officers and suspects.

The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy recently adopted a new training model officials say could reduce police shootings, although some critics argue those changes may increase them. The issue took on greater urgency after a homeless camper was killed this month by police in a barrage of gunfire, and a furor has erupted over the shooting since helmet-camera video surfaced showing the victim gathering his belongings and turning away right before officers shot him.

Documents outlining the new curriculum reviewed by The Associated Press show that cadets are now being trained to shy away from using deadly force in some cases where suspects are carrying weapons such as knives -- a change that supporters say may de-escalate deadly force situations. For example, the new curriculum teaches cadets to take cover and use a stun gun to calm knife-wielding suspects if they are at a safe distance. But if the officer fears for his safety, deadly force is an option.

Critics say the new instructions about deadly force could be so confusing to young officers that they won't think clearly in dangerous situations, thereby increasing the likelihood of deadly shootings.

Other changes in the curriculum include reducing the amount of time cadets spend at the academy from 22 weeks to 16.

The move came following complaints from police chiefs and sheriffs who said the academy wasn't properly preparing cadets after the Albuquerque Police Department fell under a U.S. Justice Department investigation over cases of excessive force and more than three dozen police shootings since 2010, including two in the last 10 days.

In one of the latest shootings, a homeless camper was killed last week during a long standoff with Albuquerque officers in the Sandia foothills. Authorities said James Boyd, 38, died after officer unloaded stun guns, bean bags and six live rounds. Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden said Boyd threatened to kill officers and held onto knives as an unarmed K-9 officer approached him. But the helmet-camera video showed Boyd turning away right before officers unloaded.

Hours after a downtown protest over that shooting, Albuquerque police on Tuesday night shot a 30-year-old man Tuesday who authorities said fired his gun at police at a public housing complex.

New Mexico Department of Public Safety Secretary Greg Fouratt said he is reviewing the reformed curriculum and, so far, supports the training changes he believes would reduce police shootings across the state.

"Any modification to training material has to have an eye on reducing deadly force encounters," said Fouratt, who took over the department this month. "The goal is to make sure lives are protected, injuries are not inflicted and the peace is kept."

A key change supporters say may de-escalate deadly force cases is the shift from the academy's "reactive control model," which teaches cadets that when a suspect draws a knife, for example, the officers immediately should draw a gun regardless of the distance between the two. That model of training, which academy officials say has been used in agencies across the state and hasn't been updated since 2003, doesn't take into account the use of stun guns or other nonlethal options.

Under the new changes, cadets are taught the "reasonableness standard model," which uses case law to explain the various options officers and deputies should consider before using deadly force.

"It does sound like they are moving in the right direction," said Phillip Lyons, a criminal justice professor at the Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, who is not affiliated with New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board. "A full range of option is generally a good thing, especially if the encounter can be de-escalated."

But Chris Mechels, a retired Tesuque resident and critic of the changes, said the new curriculum could have the opposite effect because it would confuse incoming cadets who have only a GED or high school education.

"The new policy makes no sense and is confusing these kids with legal gobbly goop," he said.

Mechels also criticized the academy for reducing its number of training weeks and said cadets were losing out on valuable lessons.

According to the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement, the academy's reduction has placed New Mexico at the 15th highest state in academy hours required, more than New York and Texas. It was the 8th highest before the reduction.

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