Over my first year in residence in New Mexico, it became clear, just from watching or reading the local news, that there were a lot of incidents in which officers of the Albuquerque Police Department fired their weapons, and shot civilians. Between 2010 and 2014, the APD shot 40 civilians and killed 27 of them.
The worst case, by far, was the March 16, 2014 shooting of a homeless, mentally ill man named James Boyd. Boyd was to be arrested on charges of camping illegally in a restricted area of the Sandia foothills on the eastern edge of Albuquerque.
Police quickly established two things: the suspect was uncooperative and well-known within the APD. James Boyd had a record of violence against police and civilians and was seriously mentally ill.
While all that sunk in, a sort of siege began, with police asking Boyd to surrender and him not complying. Hours passed. A large contingent of officers including members of the SWAT team gathered. Although APD had a psychiatrist on crisis call, neither he, nor anyone else trained in mental health, were summoned to the scene.
It began to get dark and the siege turned into an attack. Boyd had a knife and from time to time brandished it. The police had a variety of weapons, and they used them in precisely the wrong order.
Astonishingly, the first piece fired was a flash-bang, whose bright explosion and loud sound are meant to subdue an enemy. To the mentally ill Boyd the intended shock and awe turned into fear and rage. The two fatal shotgun blasts that followed killed Boyd and the simultaneous fusillade of smaller weapons were irrelevant. Police video of the whole horrifying event ended with painful stupidity. The sub-lethal weapons, beanbag guns were used last, the video showed them bouncing off what was by then James Boyd’s corpse.
Since then, the APD has undergone years of federal oversight, and especially since the former Mayor who had coddled the former leadership of the hyper-violent police department left office, things have gotten measurably better.
A lot of the oversight and the reform was propelled by the Boyd killing, but even as this was happening people were asking if dealing with a known mentally ill person like James Boyd should be a job for the police, or for people better trained for the task?
On June 15, propelled now by the new focus on policing after the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, Mayor Tim Keller announced a third department of first responders in the City of Albuquerque.
Albuquerque Community Safety will serve alongside the Albuquerque Police Department and Albuquerque Fire Rescue to deliver a civilian-staffed, public health approach to safety.
Of course, this raises a second question: Would the social workers, homelessness specialists and violence prevention experts working for Albuquerque Community Safety – faced with someone like James Boyd – have needed police back-up?
My answer would be, probably yes, but back-ups don’t necessarily control the scene, but more to the point, the experience of America’s longest-running community intervention program says, that would be the exception that proves the rule.
Eugene, Oregon’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, known as CAHOOTS, is in its 31st year of successful service and it reports that last year, out of 24,000 calls, the team asked for police backup in 150 cases.
Matt Vasilogambros reports for Stateline, a news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Before joining Pew, he was a writer and editor at The Atlantic, where he covered national politics and demographics. Previously, he was a staff correspondent at National Journal and has written for Outside. In 2017, he completed the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. He is a graduate of Drake University.