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Ex officers file lawsuit against HPD

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A federal lawsuit filed last week by three former Hobbs Police Department officers alleges racial discrimination and retaliation within the agency and that they were encouraged to target people of color to make quotas.

The 21-page lawsuit, filed Oct. 5 in Albuquerque, on behalf of African-American officers Brandon Ellis and Vasshawn Robinson, as well as Caucasian officer Jeremy Artis, seeks actual and special damages, along with punitive damages against a number of defendants from the City of Hobbs and Hobbs Police Department based on violations of the New Mexico Whistle Blower Protection Act, Equal Protection Clause and First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“During the time HPD employed the plaintiffs, each plaintiff police officer witnessed and endured racial discrimination and attempted to report it,” the lawsuit states. “Each plaintiff endured subsequent retaliatory actions for reporting racial discrimination and for associating with one another.” It further alleges those actions led the officers to seek employment elsewhere, but individuals with Hobbs police “ensured” they wouldn’t be hired. All three plaintiffs are currently employed with the Lea County Sheriff’s Office where they earn $6 less an hour, according to Albuquerque civil rights attorney Shannon Kennedy of Kennedy, Kennedy and Ives law firm.

The lawsuit also details a number of incidents that involve discrimination and retaliation for plaintiffs’ actions, which include meeting with a local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) leader and also engaging in speech as “police officers voicing publicly concern for the safety, wellbeing and constitutional rights of African-Americans and people of color living in the City of Hobbs.”

For example, one incident cited was Ellis being told he needed “at least 80 traffic stops” a month and encouraged to get stops in the east side of Hobbs, which is described as a predominantly minority community. If he didn’t get more stops, Ellis was told he’d be written up and could later be placed on an improvement program and/ or terminated.

“Officers were directed to make their quota by stopping citizens of color and African-American officers, such as plaintiffs, were mocked and degraded while on the job for failing to do so,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also details a time where Ellis reported an officer using a racial slur during a briefing to HPD sergeants, while another incident described Robinson being excluded during his training from eating lunch with Caucasian trainees and having to stand in a corner.

“He was told that he ‘was not allowed’ to sit with them,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit names HPD, Sgt. Jason Herrera, Lt. Chad Wright, Lt. Shane Blevins, Officer Jeremy Kirk, Officer Matthew Burleson, Officer Jimmy Grimes, Police Chief Chris McCall and former Hobbs City Manager J.J. Murphy as defendants.

Kennedy said the objection of the lawsuit is “two-fold” and that we need people of color and from the African-American community to protect and serve, as well as act as bridges to communities that may historically have been targeted by police departments.

“The purpose of this lawsuit is more than just recognizing that these three men were targeted — it’s saying ‘hey, how do we move forward as a community and a country’ so that police departments can actually do effective, constitutional, community policing,” she said Tuesday.

Kennedy explained summons for the lawsuit have gone out, but it’s still in the process of being served to the defendants. The City of Hobbs released a lengthy statement Tuesday after media inquires into the federal lawsuit:

“The City of Hobbs, the Hobbs Police Department, nor the individuals officers named in this lawsuit have been served and have no specific knowledge of the accusations contained in the suit,” the statement read. “Once the parties have been served, the specific allegations will be appropriately reviewed and a response will occur.”

It further added any allegations of policy or procedure violations against HPD or its officers are taken “very seriously” and it’ll respond in a “timely and appropriate manner.”

“The Hobbs Police Department has worked hard through numerous community partnerships and programs to grow relationships in our community between the department and our citizens,” the statement reads. “It is unfortunate that the individuals, along with this law firm have chosen this path to paint the Hobbs Police Department in such a negative light.”

The full lawsuit and HPD response can be read at www.hobbsnews.com.

An earlier form or version of the lawsuit was filed Aug. 2 in Fifth Judicial District Court in Lovington, according to online New Mexico court records, and a copy of the document was posted afterwards on a locally oriented Facebook group.

“There’s a set of rules that we all have to play by. One of those rules, a lawsuit, once it’s filed needs to be served,” City Attorney Mike Stone said Tuesday. “The defendants need to be served and until that point, I can only estimate and guesstimate what the allegations are and so subsequently I’m not in a position where I can even respond substantively to anything.”

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