Albuquerque mayor says fatal police shootings 'a game changer'

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has asked the US Department of Justice to help monitor the city's embattled police force and improve outcomes, especially for mentally ill people who confront police.

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, here meeting with reporters on March 31, called on the US Department of Justice to quickly release findings from its investigation of fatal police shootings there and to help monitor department reforms.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry called on the US Department of Justice to step in to monitor the New Mexican city’s police force after hundreds of protesters over the weekend decried a spate of fatal police shootings, two of them of mentally ill people, in the last month.

The mayor called the death of James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man killed by police in March, a “game changer” for the Albuquerque Police Department. He announced Wednesday that he had asked the Justice Department to quickly work out  a "cooperative monitoring partnership agreement" with the APD to help restore community confidence. 

The Justice Department has already spent the last year investigating allegations that the APD had been too quick to fire live ammunition, especially when working with mentally ill civilians.

“Prior to the completion of the DOJ [Department of Justice] investigation and the publication of findings, I would like to immediately begin to the process of negotiating a cooperative agreement between the DOJ and the City of Albuquerque to implement a DOJ monitoring plan,” wrote Mayor Berry in a letter to the Justice Department released Wednesday.

Berry asked federal officials to step up the investigation and release findings as soon as possible. The Justice Department investigation reportedly concluded this week, with findings expected in days, according to local television station KQRE. 

Berry also announced plans to train all field officers in crisis intervention, as well as 60 other new measures that he described as “sweeping changes.” The revisions are contingent on about $1 million in extra funding for the police force.

Over the weekend, demonstrators marched through downtown Albuquerque. They were protesting not just the two most recent police shootings, but also what they said was a broader, unaddressed problem of police acting with impunity, which puts people with mental illness at risk.

Since 2010, Albuquerque officers have shot and killed 23 people, most of whom had documented mental illnesses, according to KQRE. The station posted a video of the Boyd shooting on YouTube last week.

Police have considerable prerogative to use lethal force when an officer believes that his or her life is being threatened. But numerous shootings, including high-profile killings in California and Texas, have spotlighted the tragic results that can occur when the mentally ill collide with police use of force.

Most police departments, including the APD, have some kind of special protocol for dealing with mentally ill populations, who are less likely to understand the stakes of an escalating situation or to be able to follow an officer’s orders. The mentally ill can also be more likely to alarm an officer, such protocols caution.

The APD, like most (but not all) police departments, also has a Crisis Intervention Training Program to prepare officers to work with mentally ill populations. But just 25 percent of its officers have been through the program. Experts told The New York Times that the guidelines are only as good as they are actually practiced.

The FBI has launched a criminal inquiry into Mr. Boyd’s death on March 16, when police fired six live rounds at the end of a standoff in which they were trying to remove him from an illegal camp in the Sandia Mountains. In a video recorded on one officer’s helmet-camera, police appear to shoot Boyd – who was telling officers he was a government agent and would kill them with a knife – after he had calmed down and was packing up his things to come with the officers.

In a second incident about a week later, officers shot and killed a homeless man who they say shot at them first. But witnesses said that the man pointed the gun at his own head and did not shoot at police

Civil liberties activists welcomed Berry’s proposed reforms but also expressed concern that it had taken dozens of deaths – and civil lawsuits that have cost the city some $24 million – to get any traction.

“It is a shame that the city’s leadership took so long to respond with aggressive action,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU New Mexico, in a statement.

On Wednesday night, more than 100 people gathered for a vigil on the hillside where Boyd was killed, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported. “Your death is changing our system,” read a sign placed at the site. 

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