Council, city manager respond after comments slam city for officer’s death


Around 40 people protested a Las Cruces City Council meeting Tuesday following the death of a Las Cruces Police Department officer.

The commenters – nearly all of whom identified themselves as local business owners – laid blame for the officer’s death at the feet of the city council’s governance and policy guidance over the last four years. Many commenters singled out Johana Bencomo, who represents District 4, for what they referred to as failed progressive policies that have led to more crime in Las Cruces and an underfunded police department.

“I think it’s time that we do a congratulations to the councilor of District 4 for creating such a beautiful magnet to bring crime and lawlessness into our district,” said Fred Huff, one of the commenters.

The city council – including Bencomo – has voted to increase the police department’s budget by 25 percent over the last three years. They’ve allowed the police department to hire 18 new officers and spent nearly $6 million on vehicles. During that time, the police department also reported a decrease in crime.

The commenters also suggested the council was responsible for executive action and execution of policy. But the charter and system of governance makes the city manager responsible for that. 

“If people understood that, rather than pointing fingers at the mayor and council, I think there would be more productivity in the conversations that we have,” City Manager Ifo Pili said at the outset of the meeting.

Nearly all commenters — many of whom called for more transparency and accountability from the council and said the public needed to pay more attention to the council’s actions — did not stick around to hear the council and city management’s responses at the end of the meeting.

“I’m happy to sit down with anybody and talk about the plans from administration, to talk about what’s working and what’s not; we’ve also asked for solutions and haven’t really gotten much from those who have come,” Pili said. “What they have walked away with is a better understanding of how city government works.”

The catalyst for commenters’ salvos was the stabbing death of Las Cruces Police Department Officer Jonah Hernandez. Hernandez was stabbed by a man on the corner of Valley Drive and Amador Avenue while responding to a trespassing call earlier this month.

Jeremy Story, chief of LCPD, said the man was homeless at the time of the stabbing. Local television news stations reported that the man’s family paid for him to live in an apartment, but it’s unclear if he was actively utilizing it. The family also said that the man had schizophrenia. A bystander gunned down the assailant as police arrived.

While there are still numerous questions about what occurred – the city and police department have delayed records requests over body camera and police reports from the incident – most of the commenters still felt compelled to lay the fault for Hernandez’s death at the feet of the council.

Michael Fraembs, owner of Arista Development, said the group was forming an organization they called “Business Owners for Public Safety.”

“We all have the responsibility to uphold the criminal justice system,” Fraembs said. “Criminals need to go to jail.”

Fraembs and other commenters also demanded a work session to relitigate their concerns over fentanyl use in Las Cruces, allegations of harassment against business owners and a general fear of unhoused people and their motivations. One commenter also called for the council to reconsider Pili’s contract as city manager.

Other commenters described their experience and feelings of fear when witnessing the public use of drugs, people in mental health crises and visible poverty. While every council member said they sympathized with those feelings, District 2’s representative Bill Mattiace said he heard the comments as a wake-up call.

“I appreciate their words today. It’s quite an eye-opener,” Mattiace said.

Mattiace confirmed that he played a role in advising some of the commenters when asked by the Las Cruces Bulletin.

“The only suggestion I made was that a lot of businesses are not able to tell their story,” Mattiace said. “And all I suggested was all of you could actually tell your story in three minutes.”

Mattiace went on to say, “That’s basically it. You’ve heard the stories as I have. Of course, I’m not a proponent of attacks. For example, I think it was unfair on Bencomo.”

“I really saw it as bashing of mayor pro tem Bencomo,” Yvonne Flores, who represents District 6, said. “She’s worked very hard on many, many issues that are the root problem that contribute to the situation that we’re in.”

Flores added, “We have to be awfully naive or down-right ignorant to think that four years being on city council … made all the difference and was a major contributing factor to homelessness.”

Becki Graham, who represents district 3, and Becky Corran, who represents district 5, also voiced support for Bencomo.

“You shouldered a lot today. I want to recognize how heavy that was,” Graham said.

Despite the comments directed at her, election results suggest Bencomo is popular among her constituency.

In 2023, she staved off three challengers to hold on to her seat. Bencomo won the election in the second round of ranked-choice. She collected 48 percent in the first round, whereas the other candidates collected about 7 percent, 11 percent, and 34 percent.

At the end of the meeting, Bencomo had a chance to respond. Before starting, she paused, seemingly to collect her thoughts.

“I just want to say that I’ve felt deeply saddened by the loss of Officer Hernandez,” she began her comments. “It has had a pretty profound impact on me.”

Bencomo went on to say that she was grateful for LCPD’s leadership.

“You’re a deeply courageous and thoughtful leader,” she told Chief Story.

Bencomo said societal problems are the problems of the community, not just government and nonprofit organizations.

“I think the question of what I could have done, what we could have done, will always stick with me,” she said. “But … shame and guilt and blame are dead weight emotions. Sadness can turn into anger, and anger can turn into action, and that’s sort of how I see this moment. I think we have to reject calls for divisiveness, and we have to reject calls that are malicious.

“The moment that you cheer and laugh at my expense, it unfortunately creates a different narrative for me that perhaps this (public comments) isn’t in good faith. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to reject that as much as I can because I believe that we can build real safety,” Bencomo said.

Slain officer, protest, Las Cruces City Council, Jonah Hernandez, Ifo Pili, Johana Bencomo