SANTA FE – New Mexico’s top prosecutor urged lawmakers Tuesday to fund a new investigative unit to guard against hate crimes and bolster cybersecurity in response to the August mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and other emerging threats that might qualify as terrorism.
Attorney General Hector Balderas on Tuesday asked a budget-writing committee for about a half-million dollars in annual spending to pay five new employees in a new precaution against potential attacks on public schools, retail stores and other vulnerable public venues.
Police say a gunman was targeting Mexicans as he opened fire Aug. 3 at a retail store within 10 miles of New Mexico, killing 22 people. More than 40% of New Mexico residents claim Latino heritage.
Balderas said one specific focus of concern are disaffected youths, including minors who drop off the radar despite signs of social difficulties and disciplinary problems at school.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” Balderas said. “We don’t know where some of these threats are going, but having the right legal and investigative expertise would go a long way.”
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and leading legislators expressed support in August for possible new criminal statutes related to “domestic terrorism” and hate crimes in the immediate aftermath of the El Paso mass shooting.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Sackett said Tuesday that a public safety package will be on the agenda for the Legislature’s rapid-fire 30-day session in January, without providing more details. Legislative sessions in even-numbered years are confined to budget issues and additional issues specified by the governor.
In a September letter to lawmakers, Balderas provided suggestions about possible legal reforms that would expand the state’s existing anti-terrorism and hate crimes laws to include crimes of cyberterrorism and making a terroristic threat toward a school, with increased penalties for violations.
He also suggested the creation of a “bias incident act” that would establish sanctions for incidents in which hate groups seek to intimidate racial and ethnic minority groups.
On Tuesday, Balderas urged a panel of lawmakers to move forward with anti-terrorism reforms, noting that it is difficult even to gather data and assess threats without new legal definitions for hate crimes and terrorism.
“I actually look forward to the debates,” he said. “We have to define what domestic terrorism is, what hate crimes are,” he said.
Outside the hearing, Balderas said that advocates for civil liberties, such as the ACLU, should take part in discussions on any new legislation.
Leading legislators including Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth have said the El Paso shooting adds urgency to stalled efforts to enact red-flag legislation that makes it easier to petition a judge to take firearms from people who may be a danger to themselves or others.