The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government on Friday asked the city of Rio Rancho to comply with The New Mexican’s request for records of the December death of a young child of a Santa Fe police officer, saying in a letter to city attorney Greg Lauer the “Cover denial” of 911 audio recordings and police reports is “inconsistent with both the law and longstanding practice.”
The Foundation’s Executive Director, Shannon Kunkel, also made a “mirror request” for the same records.
“We hope you will agree that it would be preferable to avoid the time and expense of litigation on this matter, which we think is pretty clear,” Kunkel wrote.
Rio Rancho Records Department officials have said confidentiality requirements in two statutes of the New Mexico Children’s Code prevent the release of information about 2-year-old Lincoln Harmon, who died Dec. 8.
The information sought under the New Mexico Public Records Inspection Act is “essential police information related to the unfortunate death of a child,” she wrote. “Nothing in the Children’s Act says that original records of entry, such as 911 records and police reports, created and maintained by other agencies such as the City of Rio Rancho are covered by an unwritten but comprehensive shield of Children’s Act. This is a longstanding legal interpretation of both [the state Children, Youth and Families Department] and various custodians of records based on our experience on the matter.”
Kunkel wrote that using the Children’s Code to deny a request for public records was a “gross misinterpretation” of the law created to protect children’s confidential information, particularly in cases of abuse and neglect reported by the New Mexico are treated.
“The Children’s Code is designed to protect confidential information about minors,” Kunkel wrote. “It should not be used in any way to protect against basic public police record keeping.”
Lincoln’s mother, Courtney Harmon, made a frantic call to emergency services on the morning of December 8, according to an affidavit accompanied by a search warrant, saying her son had been critically injured. Santa Fe Police Officer Jonathan Harmon, 28, the child’s father, attempted to resuscitate him by performing CPR.
Investigators responding to the call found a bullet casing and an empty pistol holster on a table in the Rio Rancho home. Courtney Harmon told investigators the firearm was kept 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 not released any further details about the shooting, and no charges have been filed in Lincoln’s death.
Jonathan and Courtney Harmon’s social media profiles show the couple in multiple photos with Lincoln and two other young children, including a toddler.
Rio Rancho Police Captain Joel Holt confirmed in late December that the state’s Children, Youth and Family Services Department has been contacted about the case, but did not elaborate. Agency officials have declined to comment on whether she was involved in the response to Lincoln’s death or whether she took other children in the family into custody.
Holt said last month there was no anticipated timeline for the investigation to be completed.
The New Mexico Children’s Code includes confidentiality requirements for juvenile delinquency cases; abuse and neglect; families in need of court-ordered services; and adoptions.
In cases where a child has died, the Code provides general protocols for the Department of Children, Youth and Families. If there is a reasonable suspicion that a death was caused by abuse or neglect, the department must provide certain information upon 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 that the search warrant affidavit filed by Rio Rancho police on Lincoln’s death was evidence that the Children’s Act did not cover all aspects of the case.
“In the Rio Rancho case, if the comprehensive approach to secrecy you proposed were indeed the law, even the affidavit to seek it would have been sealed,” she wrote. “It was not.”
She cited high-profile child deaths in Albuquerque where law enforcement had failed to restrict the release of information based on the Children’s Act, including the 2013 death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela and the 2016 death of 10-year-old Victoria Martens and the death of 4-year-old James Dunklee Cruz in 2019.
“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 that her letter contained “no legal, statutory or other authority” to reasonably portray the Children’s Code as “meaningless.”
He added, “If ever a court or legislature decides to overturn the confidentiality provisions of the Children’s Code” so that “media types can access and exploit children’s confidential files and information, maybe we’ll have a different conversation at that point.”
He wrote the code, which only allows certain authorities or individuals to access confidential records.
“In addition, the Children’s Code provides specific criminal sanctions and penalties for those who violate the Code’s confidentiality provisions; This fact seems to underscore the intent of the legislature regarding the rights and privacy of child victims,” Lauer wrote.