March 27, 2023

New Mexico cities look to divert police from 911 calls for mental health

Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Isaiah Curtis, an Albuquerque Community Safety behavioral health responder, shakes hands with a man experiencing homelessness while responding to a call in Albuquerque, as Sean Martin, another responder, watches.

by Joshua Bowling and Vanessa G. Sánchez, Searchlight New Mexico

It was just after 6:30 one evening last April when Las Cruces police officer Jared Cosper responded to a mental health call. The family of Amelia Baca, a 75-year-old grandmother with dementia, had called 911, saying she appeared to be off her medication and was threatening them. They needed help.

Cosper, trained in crisis intervention, according to a subsequent lawsuit, arrived at the Bacas’ front door and instructed family members to step outside. Police body camera video shows Baca’s granddaughter thanking the officer and asking him to “be very careful with her.” The elderly woman — who spoke only Spanish — came to the door, a kitchen knife in each hand. “Drop the fucking knife,” Cosper shouted. As the family begged and screamed in protest, he shot and killed her.

Now, nearly a year after Baca’s tragic death, Las Cruces has launched an “alternative response” program, designed to send social workers and paramedics instead of armed officers to the scenes of 911 calls for mental health crises, drug overdoses and threats of suicide. Project LIGHT (an acronym for Lessen the Incidence of Grief, Harm and Trauma), has won $1 million in federal support, secured by Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján.

It’s a model that’s been embraced by other locales in New Mexico and across the country, driven in part by a rise in homelessness, a national mental health crisis and this chilling statistic: People with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that promotes laws, policies and best practices for delivering psychiatric care to those who need it most. 

The trend falls within a broader cultural reckoning with systemic racism, one that comes on the heels of high-profile police killings, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. And the subject is receiving renewed attention this week, as Virginia sheriff’s deputies and hospital workers stand accused of murdering a handcuffed and shackled man in a psychiatric hospital by pinning him to the floor for roughly 11 minutes.

But civilian response efforts have had varying success. Denver’s STAR program, which launched in 2020, is often credited with lower crime rates, while CAHOOTS, in Eugene, Oregon, has been credited with saving the city millions of dollars each year in public safety expenses. Civic leaders broadly praise programs like these for reducing police shootings.

A program in Albuquerque, on the other hand, has struggled to effect such change. In 2020, the city announced a new civilian department, Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS), to respond to a surge in mental health crises. The announcement came just days after police shot 26-year-old Max Mitnik in the head following his family’s call for help. 

Albuquerque bet big on the new department, supporting it with a nearly $12 million annual budget, a large vehicle fleet and scores of new hires, who respond to low-risk 911 calls for mental health issues, homelessness and overdoses.

But despite that investment, Albuquerque police shot and killed at least four people last year during mental health crises, compared to two such shootings in 2021. Overall, the department hit a 10-year high for police shootings, records obtained by Searchlight New Mexico show. Albuquerque police fired at people 18 times in 2022, killing 10.  

The impact of the new program in Las Cruces has yet to be seen. But while the two cities are very different, they share a common problem: an acute dearth of mental health care.

Of the growing number of civilian response departments and programs in New Mexico, leaders acknowledge, it’s difficult to measure success. Largely, people in the throes of a mental health crisis are still likely to be met with an armed police response, and advocates say that leaves them highly vulnerable.

A history of problems in Albuquerque

Other New Mexico communities have for years been sending unarmed civilians to 911 calls.  

Bernalillo County sends mobile crisis teams, rather than sheriff’s deputies, to some mental health calls, as does the Santa Fe Fire Department and Santa Fe County, which funds a regional 24/7 mobile crisis team that serves beyond city limits. Sandoval County is considering a similar program to serve rapidly growing Rio Rancho and the surrounding Pueblos.

As far back as the 1990s, the Albuquerque Police Department also introduced crisis intervention teams. Their presence didn’t put a dent in fatal police shootings, however.

Albuquerque’s police department is one of the deadliest in the country. It’s been under a federal consent decree and federal monitoring over excessive use-of-force allegations since 2014, when officers killed James Boyd, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was camping in the Sandia foothills. According to the watchdog group Police Scorecard, APD has logged more police shootings per arrest than 76 percent of all other departments in the nation. 

The 2014 consent decree mandated that 40 percent of APD officers receive specialized training in “enhanced crisis intervention.” 

Still, problems remained. The demand for a non-police response culminated in 2020, after an officer shot 26-year-old Max Mitnik, who was experiencing a “schizoaffective episode.”

Mitnik, who lived with his parents in Albuquerque’s Tanoan Country Club neighborhood, had recently stopped taking his medication, according to a lawsuit filed by his family. He expressed a desire to be hospitalized but feared he would hurt his parents if they drove him, so his father called 911 and asked for a crisis intervention team to come to the house.

The family’s lawsuit against the city of Albuquerque and an APD officer, filed in Second Judicial District Court in Bernalillo County, describes what happened next:

When the two officers arrived — both trained in advanced crisis intervention techniques — Mitnik asked them to drive him to the hospital but had second thoughts after they handcuffed him. He was later uncuffed, then went back inside the house, grabbed a paring knife and locked himself in a bathroom, where he cut himself in the neck. He eventually came out of the bathroom, still clutching the knife, and looked at responding officer Jose Ruiz. “I am going to suffer a lot if I don’t kill myself,” Mitnik allegedly told Ruiz. “Will you please kill me, sir? Kill me.”

Ruiz responded only by saying, “okay,” the lawsuit alleges, and then shot Mitnik twice — once in the head and once in the hip. Mitnik survived but needed to have a portion of his skull replaced and is now partially paralyzed, his family said in court.

Less than two weeks later, Mayor Tim Keller announced the launch of Albuquerque Community Safety.

Unlike many cities with civilian responders, ACS is its own separate, fully-fledged department, operating alongside the city’s police and fire departments. It employs some 70 responders, who answer emergency calls seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. And it has drawn credit from a variety of national experts for, as they often say, “jumping in with both feet.”

When ACS began answering calls in 2021, dispatchers were inundated. They still are. Calls have spiraled from a few hundred per month to up to 2,000 plus. In the past two years, civilian responders have gone to the scene of nearly 27,000 calls, according to a recent report. They offer to connect people with resources, such as mental health providers or homeless shelters, and give out packs of food and water. If people agree to it, responders can also transport them to medical care.

Across the country, civilian-responder programs are often designed with the clear subtext of reducing police shootings. Keller pushes back on that notion. “ACS was not done to reduce police shootings, that was never the mission,” he said in an interview with Searchlight.

When asked if ACS responders should have responded to the four mental health crises that ended in fatal police shootings last year, Keller said, “It could be … I wish that those calls were able to have been handled by ACS.”

But, he added, the high number of police shootings last year in no way reflect poorly on the department. “To say that ACS has not helped with police shootings, I think that is a very inaccurate and disingenuous statement.”

Police officials assert that the record number of police shootings is linked to the city’s gun violence and homicide rate: 120 homicides last year, according to figures released this month, an increase from the previous record of 110 in 2021.

“The vast majority of those homicides were perpetrated with a firearm,” said Matt Dietzel, APD’s crisis intervention section commander. “That same year, we had an uptick in officer-involved shootings. Are the two related? I’m sure they are.”

Advocates outside the department offer other reasons. They point to Denver, where nearly a third of calls for civilian responders are referred by a police officer. If officers arrive on the scene of a nonviolent call and see that it is a mental health crisis, they can reassign the call to a social worker or behavioral health professional. 

That kind of hand-off has rarely happened in Albuquerque, both ACS and police officials acknowledge. Precise information about referrals was not available, however: When first contacted by Searchlight, ACS said it did not monitor data about the number of times that Albuquerque police referred calls to civilian responders — crucial information that other cities closely follow. (ACS only recently started to track the data, a department spokesperson said by email.) 

ACS Director Mariela Ruiz-Angel, for her part, said she is disappointed by the surge in police shootings, but not surprised. Reform, she said, will take a long time.

“I didn’t think we were going to see a change (in police shootings) in 2022. We definitely didn’t see a change in 2021,” Ruiz-Angel said. “It’s a super, super flawed system.”

A sister killed

Elaine Maestas has seen those flaws firsthand. Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies shot her sister to death nearly four years ago.

Elisha Lucero, 28, had been living in an RV outside her uncle’s South Valley home when she had an outburst. She had been suffering symptoms of psychosis ever since the removal of a brain tumor two years earlier. When she lashed out and struck her uncle, family members dialed 911. 

In the past, whenever they’d called for help, Bernalillo County’s Mobile Crisis Team had responded and taken Lucero to the hospital. This time, however, two sheriff’s deputies showed up. When, according to incident reports, the young woman charged them with a kitchen knife, they shot her 21 times.

“She was shot until she was no longer a recognizable person,” said Maestas, who has devoted the last three years to making sense of what happened. She has become one of New Mexico’s most prominent voices for police reform — helping to create a billboard campaign with her sister’s face and the message: “What if emergency responders came armed with compassion instead of guns? Elisha Lucero, 1991-2019. #Justice4Elisha.”

In 2020, Maestas quit her job as a supervisor at the Good Samaritan Society to volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, hoping to make a difference by advocating for policies that could salve the damage brought on by police violence. She joined the ACLU staff a year later, but when a job opened at ACS in 2022, she jumped at the opportunity to be a responder.

These days, her frustration is palpable. After years of fighting, Maestas looks at New Mexico’s police reform as little more than “putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.” Despite Albuquerque’s massive investment in civilian response, she says police continue to respond to the “gray calls” — the suicide threats, the nonviolent mental health calls, the family requests for help — with guns loaded.

Reform advocates echo her concern.

“God forbid you have a mental health crisis in New Mexico,” said Loren Gomez, an organizer with the social justice nonprofit Southwest Organizing Project. “Because you’re going to get shot.”

In Las Cruces, a need

On a warm night last August, Las Cruces Police Sgt. Thaddeus Allen cruised down El Paseo Road, past the shops and movie theaters shuttered during the pandemic, past the homeless camps of the once lively business corridor and the budget motels that appeared abandoned but were in fact occupied by unpaying guests.

A call came in from a low-cost hotel on East University Avenue, where a terrified resident reported that an intruder had entered her room and was threatening her with a weapon.

Allen pulled into the parking lot of Plaza Suites, immediately flooded by a feeling of déjà vu. He knew the room, knew the young woman — and knew there was no threat. He also knew her mother, who had repeatedly begged him to take her daughter to the hospital.

When the door opened, there they were — just as he’d predicted. Please, the mother asked, couldn’t he do something? Couldn’t someone take her daughter to a hospital?

People don’t become cops for this kind of work, as Allen said later. “You’d be surprised at how many calls end up being mental health.”

Nights like these are a case in point for civilian responders, advocates say. 

“Police are not equipped to respond to behavioral health calls, even if we invested millions of more dollars in training and in policy,” said Johana Bencomo, a Las Cruces city councilor and outspoken advocate for Project LIGHT. “They are not behavioral health professionals.”

What understaffed police force wouldn’t embrace the opportunity to make sure their officers can focus on other, more dangerous calls, advocates ask. And if someone with mental health training can offer sorely needed resources to people in crisis, what city wouldn’t welcome that?

Now, with the launch of Project LIGHT, Las Cruces is answering those questions. There will likely be some cracks in the system: Police will still respond to mental health incidents and dispatchers might be hesitant to send civilians to 911 calls, city leaders acknowledge. But, they say, something’s got to give.

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