ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The latest attempt to reduce the number of shootings by the Albuquerque Police Department, expected to be announced today, is aimed at the way officers deal with people living with mental illness.
“Project Guardian” is essentially a database-driven system that will alert officers who are serving warrants or responding to other types of calls that the officer is about to encounter someone with a mental illness, Police Chief Ray Schultz said Friday.
The change joins a growing list of measures APD has taken to address a recent spike in police shootings that, along with other issues, has the department facing a possible civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Officials are hiring a new civilian director for the APD Academy who will oversee a shift in training that focuses more on de-escalation techniques and less on paramilitary training. Also, officers will now be required to record all citizen encounters with lapel-mounted cameras, and sergeants are now required to respond to all top priority calls.
A dozen people’s names are already in an APD database that contains information gleaned from prior contacts with police and other details provided by family members, Schultz said.
When an officer is sent to a call at one of those individuals’ address, an alert will pop up on the officer’s computer screen, he said. The officer will call a dispatcher, who will relay what is in the database.
The database contains individuals’ physical description, military history, “triggers” for volatile behavior, treatment plan, criminal and violent history and calming influences.
“These are not secret files,” Schultz said. “This is information that we have gathered from our own interactions with individuals and that those individuals and their families have provided us with voluntarily.”
APD officers have shot 24 men since 2010, 17 fatally. Figures provided by the city show that 11 of those men had a history of either mental illness, substance abuse or both.
City officials are still in the process of separating those data, but say they are confident that in most of the 11 mental health- or substance-abuse-related incidents that ended with shots fired, the officer wasn’t aware of the issue before arriving at the call.
That’s one of the aims of “Project Guardian,” the chief said: to get relevant information into the hands of first-responding officers early.
Encounters between police and people living with mental illness can also turn deadly in the other direction. For example, APD officers Michael King and Richard Smith were killed in 2005 by John Hyde, whom the officers were going to pick up for a mental health evaluation when he ambushed them.
Record of illness
One of the 11 men with mental illness killed by APD officers was Christopher Torres, who was fatally shot April 12, 2011, when APD officers Christopher Brown and Richard Hilger went to his family’s home with a newly signed felony warrant for his arrest.
The warrant stemmed from an incident in which Torres allegedly tried to pull a woman from her car at a traffic light on Paseo del Norte on Feb. 17, 2011. Hilger and Brown also knew APD had received 25 calls for aggressive driving and “road rage” incidents between Jan. 25 and March 29 of last year, involving the black Ford Mustang that Torres was driving Feb. 17.
But the detectives did not know that Torres had been arrested three days after that incident, on Feb. 20, when he allegedly attacked an armed man in a Taylor Ranch restaurant and told police “satellites are observing us” and that he was on medication for schizophrenia, according to police. And they didn’t know that twice in January 2003, APD officers went to the Torres home after family members had called about Christopher Torres behaving erratically.
On both occasions, family members told officers that Torres, who is the son of Bernalillo County Human Resources Director Renetta Torres, was schizophrenic.
All three of those incidents are documented in public police and court records.
Renetta Torres said the “Project Guardian” appears to be, on the surface, a step in the right direction toward reducing the number of police shootings and improving relations between APD and the community.
“But my first reaction to this is that it is just another cosmetic change aimed at pacifying the public,” she said. “They seem unwilling to address the systemic change that’s needed, and all of these policy changes just fly in the face of our intelligence.
“The heart of the problem is how they are trained. If the goal of an officer is to defuse a situation, that will dictate how the situation is handled. If that’s not the goal, then the officer is going to go in with guns blazing and no respect for human life, and we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we’ve had 24 shootings in 28 months.”
City officials also said they have nearly completed a mental health services directory that will be available to all patrol officers, in city facilities and on the city’s website, www.cabq.gov.
It will contain information on where people can get different kinds of mental health services, Mayor Richard Berry said.
“We all want better community outcomes,” the mayor said. “That takes a community effort.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal