Published: 2:29 pm, Sun. Jan. 1st, 2017Updated: 2:27 pm
Law enforcement officers face more than their share of difficult situations on a daily basis, many impossible to prevent. But over the past several months in Artesia, preventable difficulties have surfaced in the form of uncooperative individuals involved in an incident or crime.
The Daily Press contacted Artesia Police Department Cmdr. Lindell Smith to inquire just what it means for law enforcement when a victim or witness refuses to cooperate in an investigation.
Incidents that seem to fade away are noticeable. The Daily Press is often contacted by readers asking why followup information has not been published regarding a crime, and the answer is often that the investigation has stalled, hampered by a lack of information from victims or witnesses. The most recent example: A shooting last week that followed a traffic accident in the area of Gage and Roselawn avenues.
Smith can recall at least four cases, both misdemeanor and felony, in the past six months in which a victim or witness chose not to provide a statement, or did not provide a complete or truthful statement.
“I can surmise there are several reasons why somebody would choose not to make a statement or follow up with information,” said Smith. “Fear, apathy, wish for vigilantism, and no confidence in the police, prosecutorial staff, judges, or the criminal justice system are reasons that immediately come to mind.”
Smith points out those looking to take the law into their own hands risk arrest themselves if that retaliation involves an unlawful act.
To most citizens, it’s inexplicable that any individual would not want to see someone who’s done them harm, be it physical or material, pay appropriately for their crime. Not only does it leave them without justice, it leaves a criminal unpunished and thus undeterred should they choose to strike again.
“The occurrence that a victim is unwilling to give information when specific and useful information is available only leads to people being uncharged for crimes,” Smith said. “This is a personal choice and could be put in the category of ‘not anybody’s business but the victim’s.’ However, when a violent crime or significant property crime occurs, and for some reason the route of noncooperation is chosen, it leaves the person that committed the crime still roaming around.
“It then becomes the business of others when other people’s safety and the well being of their property is in jeopardy.”
Smith assures the public the APD does all it can to persuade victims and witnesses to cooperate for the greater good, as well as to bypass them when necessary and seek evidence elsewhere.
“But we made every effort not to violate people’s constitutional rights when we are working a case,” he said.
Once a victim has made clear they have no intention of providing information or following up with a case, Smith says, they may be asked to sign a prosecution waiver.
“This is a document declaring that the victim has no interest in the perpetrator of a crime being held accountable,” said Smith. “We do not complete these waivers, nor will we ask for them concerning crimes against a household member, because we are statutorily bound to make an arrest on an aggressor if the crime is indeed against a household member. This is in order to take necessary action to prevent further violence against the household member.”
Readers have also inquired in the past as to the possibility of charging uncooperative individuals with obstruction of justice or impeding an investigation. But there are specific and significant criteria that must be met to justify those charges.
“New Mexico State Statute 30-22-1 speaks of resisting and obstructing an officer in the discharge of serving a process, rule or order of a court, intentionally fleeing or willfully refusing to stop a vehicle, and resisting any officer or judge in the discharge of his duties,” said Smith. “To say that the police have some power to make others tell us what we need to know is wrong.
“We must look at the situation realistically and ask ourselves, ‘How is one made to talk?’ Sometimes it comes down to it being a skill to get people to talk. Sometimes it comes down to unrealistic expectations.”
While refusals to cooperate with their efforts to render aid are obviously frustrating for law enforcement officers, when it happens, there is simply little they can do – other than encourage such victims and witnesses to consider the broader implications of allowing a criminal to go free.
“We try to solve cases because it is our sworn duty and mission statement,” Smith said. “When we hit a brick wall or a temporary setback, we sometimes re-prioritize things, including entire cases. We also sometimes look to alternate sources for information.
“I’ll sum up by saying none of us is perfect. Not the law enforcement officers or agencies, not the media, not the citizens at large, not victims or witnesses of a crime, and certainly not those who commit crimes. But every one of us makes choices every day that affect not only themselves but their families and sometimes even people that they don’t know. I’d encourage people to do what they can and consider the consequences of the actions they take.”