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We’ll be paying for a long, long time

I’m mad as hell about local taxes, and you will be too when you understand the implications of a recent lawsuit settlement. Law enforcement leaders made a big mistake, but we’re the ones who will pay for it.

Back in March, the town of Silver City approved raising its portion of the gross receipts tax to the maximum level allowed without a public vote. The money is for a bond to pay off a $10 million settlement to the family of a woman killed by a police officer. The bond will be paid down slowly, but every penny paid will be a penny that could have been spent fixing potholes, improving pipes or building a new swimming pool. 

The story of the killing of Nikki Bascom by police officer Mark Contreras, who then killed himself, has been told in bits and pieces over and over in the Daily Press since it happened in April 2016. Google “Nikki Bascom” to learn more than you want to know.

The court documents describing this situation are horrifying. The killing could and should have been prevented. The $10 million settlement is cheap. The details aren’t something you want a jury to hear.

This police scandal, one of several during the last 20 years, illustrates the difficulty of finding good law enforcement officers, and of being a good law enforcement officer. There aren’t any good guys in this story, and that includes current and former officers. Grant County settled their part of the same lawsuit in 2020 for $900,000.

Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. You can’t take $10 million out of the hides of the officers responsible, instead of out of our own hides, because they don’t have it.

Few of us had any idea what was going on, but we’d better start paying attention. The current police chief, Freddie Portillo, and other town officials are taking steps to prevent similar cases. They’re doing it under the supervision of an out-of-town law firm that specializes in these cases. Police misbehavior is so common that it has become a legal specialty.

Specifically, law enforcement officers who threaten or harm their romantic partners is a thing. And frequently, other officers fail to stop their fellow officers who are way out of line. Of course, we don’t want to spread the blame to the majority of officers who never come close to this kind of problem. But we can’t just pretend it doesn’t happen. It would have cost a lot less than $10 million to pay officers more, recruit them more carefully, train them better and make sure they followed their training.

A local group, Silver City Citizens for Safety and Community, is proposing a citizens advisory and review board to work with the Police Department to help prevent problems. Local experts would be appointed, including a social worker, a mental health counselor, an educator and a retired police officer. One of the functions of the board would be to provide a way for citizens to make complaints. Citizens who read about this case would likely be hesitant to report law enforcement abuse to law enforcers.

Yes, police are famous for standing together and not reporting each other’s failings. But so are doctors, lawyers, contractors and just about every other profession — including columnists.

So providing an anonymous way to report police problems is one of several benefits of a law enforcement advisory board. You can read the details of the proposal at

When I was a newspaper reporter in my distant youth, I worked with many police officers and developed some opinions of them — as they did of me. One conclusion was that the difference between a good law enforcement officer and a bad one is a mighty fine line. The same officer may be on different sides of it in different situations.

Police need to be strong, confident, calm and loyal. If you need help in a difficult situation, you don’t want a weak or nervous officer. But the same loyalty that helps police work together sometimes works against the rest of us. Most citizens don’t deal with police enough to judge individual officers until it is too late. Being a police officer can bring out the best in a person — or the worst. We all want to respect officers, and feel confident when they come to help us, or even if they ticket us for traffic violations. But the Bascom judgment reminds us that good law enforcement doesn’t come automatically. You need to cultivate it.

Since we’re paying for this, citizens might as well get involved. One way is through the proposed advisory board. We can’t unspill the milk, but maybe we can prevent more spills.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to
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