The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government on Friday urged the city of Rio Rancho to comply with The New Mexican‘s request for records in the December shooting death of a Santa Fe police officer’s young child, saying in a letter to City Attorney Greg Lauer the “blanket denial” of 911 audio recordings and police reports is “inconsistent both with law and longtime practice.”

Foundation Executive Director Shannon Kunkel also made a “mirror request” for the same records.

“We hope you agree that it would be preferable to avoid the time and expense of litigation over this matter, which we believe is fairly clear,” Kunkel wrote.

Officials with the Rio Rancho records department have said confidentiality requirements in two statutes in the New Mexico Children’s Code prevent the release of any information on 2-year-old Lincoln Harmon, who died Dec. 8.

Kunkel disagreed.

The information sought under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act is “basic police information involved in the unfortunate death of a child,” she wrote. “Nothing in the Children’s Code states that original records of entry, such as 911 records and police reports generated and held by other agencies such as the city of Rio Rancho, are covered by some unwritten yet sweeping protective umbrella of the Children’s Code. That has been a long-standing legal interpretation by both [the state Children, Youth and Families Department] and various records custodians, based on our experience on this issue.”

Kunkel wrote the use of the Children’s Code to reject a public records request was a “gross misinterpretation” of the law, created to protect children’s confidential information, particularly in abuse and neglect cases handled by New Mexico’s child welfare agency.

“The Children’s Code is intended to protect confidential information regarding minors,” Kunkel wrote. “It in no way should be used to shield from the public basic policing records.”

According to a search warrant affidavit, Lincoln’s mother, Courtney Harmon, made a frantic phone call to 911 dispatchers the morning of Dec. 8 and said her son was critically injured. Santa Fe police Officer Jonathan Harmon, 28, the child’s father, tried to revive him by performing CPR.

Investigators who responded to the call found a shell casing in the Rio Rancho home and an empty handgun holster on a table. Courtney Harmon told investigators the firearm had been placed in a kitchen cabinet, the affidavit said. Investigators seized several guns and ammunition under a search warrant issued in the days after the toddler’s death.

The Rio Rancho Police Department issued a news release two days later, saying the young child of a Santa Fe officer had died from a gunshot wound.

More than five weeks later, the agency has provided no further details about the shooting, and no charges have been filed in Lincoln’s death.

Social media profiles for Jonathan and Courtney Harmon show the couple in multiple photos with Lincoln and two other young children, including an infant.

Rio Rancho police Capt. Joel Holt confirmed in late December the state Children, Youth and Families Department was contacted about the case, but he did not elaborate. Officials with the agency have declined to comment on whether it was involved in the response to Lincoln’s death or whether it has taken any other children in the family into custody.

Holt said last month there was no projected timeline for the conclusion of the investigation.

The New Mexico Children’s Code includes confidentiality requirements for cases involving juvenile delinquency; abuse and neglect; families in need of court-ordered services; and adoptions.

In cases involving a child death, the code outlines general protocols for the Children, Youth and Families Department. If there is reasonable suspicion a death was caused by abuse or neglect, the department must release certain information in response to a written request within five business days: the child’s age, gender, date of death, custody information and whether an investigation is ongoing.

Kunkel’s letter to Lauer noted the search warrant affidavit filed by Rio Rancho police in Lincoln’s death was evidence the Children’s Code does not cover all aspects of the case.

“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,” she wrote. “It was not.”

She cited high-profile child deaths in Albuquerque in which law enforcement agencies did not restrict the release of information based on the Children’s Code, including the 2013 death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela, the 2016 death of 10-year-old Victoria Martens and 2019 death of 4-year-old James Dunklee Cruz.

“The tragic death of the child in this case is a matter of great public concern,” Kunkel wrote.

Lauer responded in an email, telling Kunkel her letter contained “no legal, statutory, or any other authority” to reasonably render the Childen’s Code to “mean nothing.”

He added: “If ever a court or the legislature does decide to erase the Children’s Code’s confidentiality provisions” so that “media-types can access and exploit children’s confidential files and information, perhaps we’ll have a different conversation at that time.”

He wrote the code authorizes only certain agencies or persons” to access confidential records.

“Moreover, the Children’s Code prescribes specific criminal sanctions and penalties for those who violate the Code’s confidentiality provisions; that fact would seem to underscore the legislature’s intent regarding child victims’ rights and privacy,” Lauer wrote.

Popular in the Community