by Vanessa G. Sánchez and Joshua Bowling, Searchlight New Mexico
Collin Neztsosie was no stranger to the Albuquerque Police Department. Its officers had transported him to the ER on numerous occasions when he was in the throes of a mental health crisis. He was listed in the department’s database as a person with acute psychiatric needs; in January 2022, APD assigned a specially-trained crisis intervention officer to regularly check in on him.
That same officer had promised Neztsosie that police would be there whenever he heard voices in his head, family members said. “The cops told him if you have any trouble, any issues, you feel suicidal, you want to hurt somebody, you want to hurt yourself, call 911,” his sister, Natasha Neztsosie, recounted.
That promise went up in smoke on March 19, 2022, when the 33-year-old Navajo father of two — in the midst of another mental health crisis — was shot and killed by Albuquerque police. It happened just a few blocks from his sister’s apartment in the city’s Singing Arrow neighborhood.
“They just shot my brother right in the head,” said Natasha, sitting on a couch surrounded by portraits her brother painted for her. “Why didn’t they give him a chance?”
In the last few years, cities across New Mexico and the nation have poured millions of dollars into civilian response teams and “alternative response programs” to combat an escalating mental health crisis. These programs flag frequent 911 callers and send social workers and behavioral health professionals — instead of armed police — to the scenes of emergency calls for mental health crises.
The need is vast. One of every five New Mexican adults struggles with some form of mental disorder, according to the state’s Legislative Finance Committee, and roughly 5 percent have a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Collin Neztsosie had been diagnosed with both.
Research shows that people with a mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than its perpetrators. And people with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that advocates for laws, policies and high-quality psychiatric care.
New Mexico’s mental health system is widely acknowledged to be fractured, underfunded and skewed toward crisis care rather than proactive, long-term interventions. With few exceptions, families and individuals are left to navigate the complexities on their own.
Like the Neztsosies, they are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle that whisks them from one stop-gap measure to the next — from treatment centers to the ER, from the ER to the streets, from the streets back to the ER. Neztsosie managed to avoid it, but for many, the cycle ends in prison.
New Mexico invested $930 million to improve behavioral health services around the state in the 2023 fiscal year, one of many funding increases in recent years. Yet many experts and advocates say the money still hasn’t found its way to the communities that need it most.
The state continues to rank at rock-bottom levels for health outcomes, according to federal and state data. New Mexico is number one for alcohol-related deaths in the country and fourth for suicide. Children and teens in the state suffer the nation’s highest rates of adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect and other traumas.
“We haven’t evolved. We haven’t improved,” said Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen, referring to the fact that services are still so lacking. Allen helped implement the county’s mobile crisis teams in 2018 during his time as a sergeant, and was elected sheriff last year.
“I really believe we’re a ticking time bomb right now,” he said. “And what I mean by that is: We don’t have all these avenues working in concert with each other.”
Those “avenues” typically begin with civilian responders, many of them licensed social workers and behavioral health counselors who rush to the scenes of mental health emergencies. But even this progressive model is hitting a brick wall — once these responders leave the scene of the incident, the person in crisis may have nowhere to turn. The responders are treating symptoms; there is often no one within reach to treat the underlying condition.
It’s a tragic shortcoming acknowledged by the very leaders of programs like Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) and the recently launched Project LIGHT in Las Cruces — both of which send behavioral health specialists to emergency calls for people in severe turmoil.
Isaiah Curtis, a Diné (Navajo) responder with ACS, was one of several emergency workers who told Searchlight New Mexico that he often finds himself answering calls from the same individuals over and over again.
In 2021, about a fifth of the nearly 4,100 calls to the Albuquerque Police Department’s specially trained crisis intervention officers involved a repeat encounter, data show. Nearly 780 people had anywhere from two to 20 behavioral health encounters with APD during that period.
This was a familiar story for the Neztsosie family, who described spending at least seven years and dozens of phone calls looking for a solution for Collin. He was also grappling with alcohol and drug use, a common “dual diagnosis” for people with emotional distress.
Unable to find long-term treatment, Neztsosie often turned to 911 for help. He bounced in and out of treatment centers, from Las Cruces to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Sometimes he was turned away because facilities didn’t take Medicaid patients; other times, his stays were limited to just a few days, his family said. One time in 2020, Natasha Neztsosie recalled, he went to a treatment center in Albuquerque while sober and was told he could only be admitted if he was intoxicated.
The mental health crisis, here and across the country, is overwhelming emergency rooms, which have become the de facto response to mental health care. In an attempt to address the problem, a crisis triage center with psychiatric and emergency stabilization services is slated to open in Albuquerque next year.
Critics contend, however, that emergency services are only a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. New Mexico, they say, needs effective, high-quality residential treatment, mental health services and behavioral health programs to meet the demand.
The Legislative Finance Committee has summarized the state’s shortcomings in two withering reports that describe a profound lack of treatment options, evidence-based services and early intervention programs across New Mexico.
As many as 134,000 people — more than the entire population of Las Cruces — have a substance use disorder and are not receiving any treatment, the LFC reported. Many are dealing with mental health issues. If they need long-term treatment facilities, they can’t find them.
“We have people calling in crisis saying ‘I need a place for my son to live,’” said Shannon Errickson, a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Albuquerque and a program coordinator for families of people with mental illness. Those places, she added, are “few and far between.”
Matt Dietzel, APD’s crisis intervention section commander, agreed with her assessment. He cited the case of one woman who called 911 more than 80 times before long-term psychiatric care was finally arranged for her. The facility was out of state.
Ten-year high for police shootings
Despite multi-million-dollar financial investments in alternative response programs, an increasing number of people with mental illness have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement.
Albuquerque police shot and killed at least four people last year during mental health crises; there were two such shootings in 2021. Overall, the department in 2022 hit a 10-year high for police shootings, records obtained by Searchlight show.
In last year’s police shootings, APD officers disproportionately shot Native American and Black men, according to the department’s own figures. Officers are often familiar with the victims.
“Whenever the police shoot someone, especially someone in a mental health crisis, they’re usually known to the police,” Dietzel said.
A tragic timeline
On the evening of March 19 last year, Albuquerque police said they responded to multiple 911 callers who say they’ve seen a man near Wenonah Avenue SE and Tramway Boulevard who appears to have a gun. Records from that day show that Neztsosie threatened to kill anyone who approached him. One 911 caller — a man who claimed he knew Neztsosie — alleged that Neztsosie had attacked him (family members dispute this).
Searchlight obtained extensive body-camera footage of the incident from eight officers, footage that still has not been released to Neztsosie family members despite months of requests, they said. A review of the footage, as well as 911 calls, dispatch records and police reports, shows the following:
At about 5:52 p.m. Neztsosie calls 911 and says he is going to kill himself, repeating on multiple occasions that he has not been taking his medication. Clearly in distress, at times sobbing or yelling in despair, he says he will shoot police if they come near. By about 5:58, a dispatcher has gotten his full name and it is relayed to officers at the scene.
By 6:01 p.m., a group of about six officers gathers outside a dry cleaner; Neztsosie is wandering in the street, about a block away. “I can hear him, but I can’t see him,” an officer says.
Officers are told that Neztsosie has a history of police encounters for mental health crises, including suicide threats, body-camera footage shows. He has a diagnosis of PTSD, depression, schizophrenia and substance use, they are informed.
At about 6:05 p.m., a police dispatch casts doubt about whether Neztsosie is armed: “I don’t see a firearm in his arms.” At 6:08, the information is repeated: “The item he has, it looks to be square in shape, he’s holding it in his hands. It doesn’t appear to be a firearm to me at this time. Can’t 100 percent guarantee though.”
Roughly 30 seconds later, one of the officers at the scene questions a man who had walked past Neztsosie on the street. Did he see anything concerning? “I didn’t see a weapon or anything,” the man replies.
At about 6:10 p.m., Lt. William Young sees emergency responders somewhere near Neztsosie. “Goddamn medics is going right through the kill zone,” he says.
At 6:12 p.m., Neztsosie — who has been on the phone with the same 911 dispatcher for nearly 20 minutes — tells the woman he has placed “the gun” on the ground. The dispatcher relays that information to officers on site.
By this time, a group of officers has started approaching Neztsosie, at least two with assault rifles drawn; they stop some 50 yards from Neztsosie. A flurry of activity occurs over the next 57 seconds.
The officers issue their first warnings at 6:12:19: “Albuquerque police department!”
“What’s his name — Neztsosie?” asks Sgt. Jonathan Mares, an APD officer trained in crisis intervention. Another officer says yes.
“Neztsosie, get on the ground!” Mares shouts.
“I can’t see what’s in his hands,” an officer near Mares says at 6:12:53.
Roughly four seconds later, at about 6:12:57, Mares and Young fire six times, hitting him in the head and killing him.
Officers continue shouting “put your hands up!” at Neztsosie, who is now lifeless, the phone still in his hand, the dispatcher still on the line. They pat him down and find he is not armed, then turn his body face down on the pavement and handcuff him. The alleged gun was actually his cell phone, the one he used to call 911. Police leave his body exposed on the road for what appears on the footage to be 20 minutes or more.
At a press conference a month later, APD Chief Harold Medina said Neztsosie “used the Albuquerque Police Department to commit suicide.” Medina called for better mental health services; he also suggested locking up some of the mentally ill to protect the public and police.
“I’ve said it over and over again: There’s a line in the sand,” Medina said. “Some of these individuals need to be kept in custody until they get the help they needed. That help may be mental health treatment, or it may be drug addiction. But in the end, they’re still dangerous, and we have to do what’s best to protect the citizens and the officers in this community.”
‘The system failed him’
On a chilly Sunday morning a year after the death of Collin Neztsosie, more than a dozen family members and community organizers gathered at Tramway Boulevard SE to set up a descanso, or resting place, to honor the “kind, loving and funny” father, brother and uncle they’d lost.
“We are really hurting,” said Natasha Neztsosie, standing next to a memorial plaque shaped like an electric guitar, the instrument her brother had played since he was a teenager.
The family wants people to remember Collin as the musician and artist he was. “He had goals and so much potential,” said Tammy Romero, another sister, adding that the family still stays up at night trying to make sense of how and why their brother was killed.
He was not dangerous, and he didn’t own a gun, his sisters said. “He was a loving person who was crying out for help,” they wrote in a statement for the vigil. “The Albuquerque APD-cops knew that.”
As of April 27, it has been 404 days since Neztsosie was killed on the street, but the family said they have not received any reports from the Albuquerque Police Department. More than 50 days ago, Searchlight requested four investigative reports from the department regarding the incident; none have been provided. Romero said the last time police responded to their calls was last June.
Police didn’t follow protocols, the sisters said. They question why officers didn’t use de-escalation techniques or use binoculars or rifle scopes to see that their brother was not carrying a gun. “They are too aggressive, have no patience, and just shoot down a human being as if they are animals,” they wrote in their statement for the vigil.
They trusted the behavioral health system to help their brother, but it didn’t deliver, Romero said.
“The system failed him,” she said. “And I’m sure it’s doing it to other people.”
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.