A back and forth among the City of Rio Rancho, Rio Rancho police, local newspapers and a government transparency advocacy group has resulted in a stalemate over records sought in the December shooting death of the 2-year-old son of a Santa Fe police officer at a Rio Rancho home.
The city attorney and Rio Rancho Police Department have cited the Children’s Code to deny repeated Inspection of Public Records Act requests — for 911 calls and initial police reports —made by the Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican and New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, or FOG.
Being familiar with the city policy to deny requests for police reports involving minors, and after multiple past disagreements with the city on the matter, the Observer hasn’t requested those records.
The requests are centered around the Dec. 8 death of Lincoln Harmon who, according to court records, was shot in the head inside the home of Santa Fe Police officer Jonathan Harmon.
A search warrant affidavit provided by the courts states the boy’s mother told 911 dispatch the boy had fallen from a chair, but arriving officers found a gun and holster nearby.
FOG Executive Director Shannon Kunkel said she was disappointed to receive the most recent denial from Gregory Lauer, Rio Rancho’s city attorney, who cited the Children’s Code as the reason for the denial.
“If ever a court or the legislature does decide to erase the Children’s Code’s confidentiality provisions so that you, Ms. (Victoria) Traxler (of the New Mexican), or other media-types can access and exploit children’s confidential files and information, perhaps we’ll have a different conversation at that time,” Lauer told Kunkel in a Jan. 14 email.
On Jan. 26, Lauer told the Journal the two confidentiality provisions of the Children’s Code cited for the denial involved children “as victims” and “as delinquents.”
In a letter to Lauer, Kunkel wrote the circumstances surrounding Harmon’s death are “a matter of great public concern” and that Rio Rancho’s “blanket refusal” to release records “is inconsistent both with law and longtime practice.” It’s also inconsistent with the most recent IPRA guide from the state Attorney General’s Office.
Kunkel wrote that nothing in the Children’s Code states that original records of entry like 911 calls “are covered by some unwritten yet sweeping protective umbrella.” She said the same types of records were not withheld in other high-profile deaths of children, including Omaree Varela and Victoria Martens.
“In the Rio Rancho matter, if the broad approach to secrecy you suggest is required was in fact the law, even the affidavit for search for it would’ve been filed under seal. It was not,” Kunkel wrote. She said there should “be no question” that initial police reports should be public under IPRA and she asked Lauer to reconsider the denial.
“We hope you agree that it would be preferable to avoid the time and expense of litigation over this matter,” Kunkel wrote.
Kunkel said FOG, which is worried the denial could set a dangerous precedent for future requests, is evaluating its next move.
The Observer filed a complaint with the state Office of the Attorney General in November 2020 over the city’s refusal to release such reports but has received no opinion or ruling despite multiple inquiries into progress. A letter prior FOG Executive Director Melanie Majors sent to the AG’s office on the matter in 2019 was also ignored.
(Observer editor Argen Marie Duncan contributed to this report.)