Shooting puts law enforcement on alert

By Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers

An atmosphere of vigilance has settled over New Mexico law enforcement agencies since they lost one of their own in a routine traffic stop on March 22.

When he stopped the driver of a gold pickup truck, Deputy James McGrane Jr., 38, was shot in the head and died. For the Bernalillo County employee, the stop was part of regular duty. And so it is for others. Only now, the dangers inherent in the task are painfully clear.

“Levels of awareness (among officers) have been heightened in light of the situation with McGrane,” said Lt. Juan Martinez, public information officer for the New Mexico State Police.

But the anxiety that comes along with making a traffic stop, no matter how many times an officer does so, never completely dissipates, officers said.

With McGrane’s death, that anxiety has increased among some officers, especially since the suspected killer has not been arrested.

Federal officials have offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Michael Paul Astorga, 29, who is wanted in connection with McGrane’s slaying.

“Officer safety is something we always emphasize,” Tucumcari Police Chief Larry Ham said. Ham said the department constantly has refresher courses on how to recognize when there is danger in a visit to a home or a traffic stop.

Among things officers are taught is to approach the vehicle’s driver on the right side, to use audible voice commands and to illuminate the roadway, as well as the interior of the vehicle at night, officials said.

Ham said officers only raise their weapons when there is a clear danger of lethal force. Certain actions by motorists can quickly put an officer on alert, such as sudden movements or hidden hands.

But keen observation and training can only do so much, officials said.

“I think that was an isolated incident,” Ham said of the McGrane shooting, “but it reminds us that we need to be prepared for anything.”

For family members of officers, worry for their loved ones in uniform is almost constant, officials said.

But the worries and fears that accompany the job, officials said, are outweighed by other aspects.

“For myself,” said Martinez, “it’s the motivation of making a difference — making this world a safer place for everyone in it.”

QCS Interim Managing Editor Kevin Wilson contributed to this report.