A former Farmington Police Department officer has been charged with multiple counts of battery and one count of felony child abuse stemming from his use of force on an 11-year-old girl at Mesa View Middle School.
Zachary Christensen was called Aug. 27, 2019, to the school to assist with a student who was reported to have been “disruptive,” according to Farmington Police Department’s official statement at the time.
An internal affairs investigation was opened Aug. 28, 2019, independent of a complaint filed by the mother of the student the same day with the police department.
“We must uphold the law and ensure that New Mexico’s schoolchildren are protected, particularly those who are most vulnerable” said Attorney General Hector Balderas in a news release announcing the charges against Christensen. “I will hold any individual accountable when they harm a child.”
In a video taken from Christensen’s lapel camera, the former officer can be seen interacting with the girl before finally engaging in a physical altercation with her in front of school administrators, who are heard verbally disapproving of the encounter.
Christensen submitted his resignation with the department Sept. 24, 2019, which took effect Oct. 1.
Farmington Police Department Chief Steve Hebbe told The Durango Herald in August 2019 that police officials showed the mother video footage of the incident, provided her a copy of the video and placed the officer on administrative leave.
The police department released the video to the public.
“Like many of you, I was shocked and angry when I watched this video. We value our relationship with our community and will continue to work hard to maintain the public’s confidence in our department,” Hebbe said when Farmington Police Department released the video.
At the time, Christensen said he believed the student had elbowed a school administrator and shoved a principal, according to the release. But when the officer reviewed his own lapel footage of the incident, he “saw he had made some errors in what he believed had happened,” Hebbe said.
The video shows the officer attempt to place the student in handcuffs, and when she resisted, the two ended up screaming until the student is ultimately wrestled to the ground despite repeatedly crying “stop, get off of me” and “stop touching me.”
School administrators tried to intervene multiple times, and one protested the use of force.
The department referred the case to the New Mexico State Police at the end of August 2019 for a criminal investigation, but the State Police did not recommend criminal charges against Christensen, Hebbe said.
Although the student’s mother initially did not want the incident to go public, Farmington Police Department decided to release details of the report after the involvement of the State Police, Hebbe said.
Farmington Municipal School District issued a statement saying it would not discuss details about the incident, out of “respect for student privacy, and to comply with student privacy laws.”
But the school administration’s statement said it was “reviewing this incident with the intent of putting into place procedures and practices to prevent another instance like this. The safety of all students entrusted in our care is among our highest priorities.”
In August 2019, Hebbe said the department was reviewing its use-of-force policies.
“Is there an age (of a child) when we know we’re not going to go hands-on unless there are extreme circumstances?” he said.
He said the department will continue to offer training and has shown the video to all of its officers to discuss mistakes made in the incident.