Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
For the fourth year in a row, New Mexico placed either first or second in the nation for its rate of deadly shootings by law enforcement officers, according to the Fatal Force database created by The Washington Post.
In 2018, New Mexico ranked first in the nation, finishing the year with 20 fatal shootings by police officers around the state, a rate of 9.59 per 1 million people.
Alaska – with 7 total fatal police shootings – was a close second, with a rate of 9.5 fatal police shootings per 1 million people. Connecticut had the smallest number of fatal police shootings – 0.
Over the past four years – dating back to 2015, when the Post began keeping a database of fatal police shootings – New Mexico has either been first or second in the nation, with a rate between nine and 11 people killed per million.
In 2017, the state came in as No. 2, behind Alaska, but it was first in the nation in 2016. In 2015 New Mexico was in second place, behind Wyoming.
A total of 995 fatal police shootings were reported across the country in 2018, according to The Washington Post. The numbers have changed little over the past four years.
Allison Goldberg, a policy adviser at the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why some states have higher rates of shootings by law enforcement than others.
“The researchers that we’ve been working with would say it’s really hard to draw causation rather than correlation, but what we do know is that higher number of stops for lower-level offenses can contribute,” Goldberg said in an interview this week. “Stemming from that, lower … trust between law enforcement and communities can heighten tension when there are these interactions.”
Maj. Tim Johnson, head of the New Mexico State Police investigations bureau, said he believes the high rates of crime here have a lot to do with it. For the past several years, New Mexico has experienced increases in violent and property crime, and it was first or second for crime rates in 2016 and 2017.
“The public becomes alarmed, and they have an expectation on their servants – law enforcement – to figure out ways to slow that down,” Johnson said. “As we attempt to slow that down by effecting an arrest or serving a warrant, investigating cases, we are coming into contact with violent people on a more regular basis than we have in the past.”
More than half of the police shootings in the state occurred in larger cities last year.
Law enforcement officers during 2018 shot and killed nine people in Albuquerque, three people in Las Cruces, and the rest in small towns and cities around the state.
In March, in the small town of Fort Sumner, southeast of Santa Rosa, State Police officers fatally shot a man who they said had tried to break into his ex-girlfriend’s house, then shot her friend and set his car on fire.
In June, a Quay County Sheriff’s deputy shot through a bedroom window, killing a 55-year-old man they say was pressing a knife against another man’s throat.
And in August, a Valencia County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a woman who they said stole a police cruiser – with her alleged accomplice to a Los Lunas burglary inside – and tried to flee the scene.
State Police role
State Police investigates the “vast majority” of shootings involving law enforcement across the state.
Small rural agencies typically turn their investigations of shootings involving officers over to State Police, which has more resources and experience, Johnson said.
And departments in some urban areas – Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Roswell and Clovis – have set up task forces made up of surrounding agencies, including NMSP, to investigate.
State Police detectives even investigate shootings by their own officers, Johnson said. The agency was involved in seven shootings last year.
He said that while New Mexico has had 20 fatal shootings, it’s important to remember the nonfatal shootings as well – of which there have been 27. The 47 officer-involved shootings last year took up a lot of the State Police investigators’ time.
Johnson said one of the biggest challenges has to do with how large and how rural the state is. Sometimes, officers are unable to communicate with one another by radio, it can be hard for them to find remote locations, and investigators have to figure out what policies and procedures the smaller agencies have in place.
“Those are some of the challenges for the New Mexico State Police and, frankly, the volume,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of officer-involved shootings in this state, and we’re primary on the vast majority of them. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of money and it takes a lot of our resources.”
He said it typically takes three to four months to wrap up an investigation and turn it over to a district attorney’s office for possible prosecution.
Goldberg, of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, said that, while some police shootings are clearly justified – such as during a hostage situation or a shootout – departments can still learn from each incident.
“What we’ve seen is police departments can adapt their training and their policies to ensure that there is proper de-escalation training and protocol to reduce risk to anyone involved,” she said. “After the incidents, it is really critical to provide mental health support to the officer involved, because it’s a traumatizing event for anyone to go through. That can help reduce future risk of harm to the officers or future community members.”
Data collection critical
Both Goldberg and Johnson stressed the importance of collecting data on police shootings.
The Washington Post began tracking police shootings around the country after the high-profile death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The team gathers data – including details about each killing – from local news reports, law enforcement agency websites, social media and independent databases and then does additional reporting in many cases.
Last fall, the FBI announced it is launching a National Use-of-Force Data Collection for the first time this year.
“The goal of the collection is not to provide insight into specific use-of-force incidents, but instead to offer a comprehensive view of the circumstances, subjects, and officers involved in such incidents nationwide,” according to the FBI’s website. Law enforcement agencies will not be required to participate.
Johnson said State Police officials discussed the undertaking and decided they would submit data about the shootings their officers had been involved in, but not the data from the other agencies they investigate.
“I think the public is demanding that of law enforcement,” he said. “They want to know and understand what’s happening and how things happen. I think that’s going to give the public, our legislators, and reporters in the media the data that they’ve been looking for.”