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Mobile crisis teams are for crises – use them

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office personnel gather at the perimeter beyond the South Valley home where Elisha Lucero, 28, was killed in an officer-involved shooting July 21. Lucero had been suffering from mental illness and had struck her uncle when deputies were called. A Mobile Crisis Team was not called. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)


She was a threat, her cousin said, to herself, to everybody.

“She’s losing it,” he told the 911 dispatcher.

Elisha Lucero, 28, had not always lost it like that, but in the past few months the once happy and outgoing woman had begun hallucinating. Some family members thought she showed signs of schizophrenia or psychosis.

A few times, they called the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office when losing it meant losing the ability to handle her outbursts.

Just before midnight July 21, BCSO was called again when Lucero hit her uncle at his South Valley home.

This time, they lost her.

As reported this week by my colleague Elise Kaplan, Lucero was shot and killed by three deputies after, Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said, she charged at them with a large knife – none of which was captured on body camera, because Gonzales still insists that such devices aren’t necessary.

At a news conference Monday, Gonzales said that deputies had tried to coax Lucero out of a locked RV, where she was holed up with an unspecified weapon.

After 20 to 30 minutes, deputies ended their attempts, leaving the unstable woman barricaded alone with a weapon and a summons for misdemeanor battery and the family no better off than before deputies arrived.

But as the deputies were leaving, Gonzales said Lucero emerged from the RV and came at them with the knife. Five seconds after a Taser round proved “ineffective” in stopping her, several rounds from three deputies’ service weapons stopped her forever.

And so we ponder again what could have been done, what should have been done to avoid another tragedy.

One reader – and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, for that matter – wondered why the Sheriff’s Office hadn’t sent a Mobile Crisis Team to the house instead of or along with the deputies.

The teams are among the new tools brought about after another tragedy – the death of James Boyd, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was shot and killed by Albuquerque police in the Sandia foothills in March 2014.

It should be noted that these new tools came about partly because of the public outrage over Boyd’s shooting, which citizens were able to see for themselves because of APD’s use of body cameras.

Each of the four crisis teams consists of a master’s-level behavioral health clinician and a law enforcement officer – two from APD and two from BCSO. Because of the high number of crisis calls in the city, APD is adding two more teams, APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.

From February 2018, when the project launched, through April, the teams responded to 1,391 unique calls for service, said Margarita Chavez-Sanchez, assistant director for the Bernalillo County Behavioral Health Services Department.

Of those, 20 percent resulted in the subject being taken to a hospital, 67.8 percent resulted in no transportation and 9.1 percent resulted in arrest, Chavez-Sanchez said.

But teams respond when a person is experiencing a behavioral health crisis that is nonviolent, and in Lucero’s case violence was implied because of the nature of the call.

“You have to remember we were there for enforcement action,” Gonzales said. “She had committed a crime.”

In other words, it wasn’t safe enough to deploy a crisis team trained to safely de-escalate a crisis.

But it also wasn’t safe for Elisha Lucero.

“If we are to prevent future tragedies like this from occurring, we must ensure that mental health professionals are the ones responding to mental health emergencies,” Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said about the BCSO’s handling of the Lucero case. “Not police.”

But perhaps Gonzales needs to take another look at how best to implement crisis teams in the future. Chavez-Sanchez said that although it is imperative to protect team members, particularly the clinician, teams can and do get called to potentially dangerous scenes.

“We want to be sure that law enforcement secures the scene first, and once the scene is secure the team can intervene,” she said.

New tools and strategies – such as mobile crisis teams, better training and body cameras – work only when they are used.

Had a crisis team been on scene that critical night when Lucero lost it, one wonders whether she could have been saved.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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