Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The sun had just set on a cool Albuquerque evening on March 16, 2014, as James Boyd – a homeless man with schizophrenia – grabbed his bags and began to walk out of the Sandia Foothills, following a lengthy standoff with police.
The SWAT team surrounding him deployed a flash-bang, and the 38-year-old pulled out two knives as a police dog advanced. Officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez shot him to death.
The incident remains one of the most high profile police shootings in the city’s history, leading to violent protests, a lengthy murder trial for the two officers (which ended in a hung jury) and a $5 million settlement. The incident sparked a series of reforms in the Albuquerque Police Department, including a concerted effort to train officers to better deal with those they encounter who are mentally ill or are in the midst of some other behavioral health crisis.
APD on Friday released a detailed report that provides a snapshot of how the department is doing on that front, chronicling the types of behavioral health-related calls coming into the dispatch center, what officers are encountering on the streets and how those situations are being handled. The 2019 Crisis Intervention Unit Data Book covers the 2018 calendar year.
Among the highlights:
• Suicide-related calls made up the lion’s share of behavioral health related requests for service in 2018 with 4,069, or close to 65%.
• Behavioral health-related calls across the city in 2018 decreased slightly for the first time in at least eight years, from an average of 17.9 calls per day in 2017 to 17.3 calls per day in 2018. Such calls had surged by 72% – from 3,797 to 6,535 – between 2010 and 2017. There were 6,302 calls in 2018.
• A map published in the data book shows that the calls received in 2018 were spread pretty evenly across much of the city, although there were large clusters along Central, particularly East Central, and parts of Gibson.
Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, said the data book focuses on how the department handles “individuals in crisis.”
“We continue to invest in quality training for field officers, while building and expanding our successful Mobile Crisis Teams that go to high-priority mental health emergency calls,” APD Chief Mike Geier said in a statement. “We are also being proactive with a team of home visit detectives and clinicians who work with people and attempt to prevent crisis situations.”
The topic has been a sore spot in the department for years, reaching a flash point when Sandy and Perez shot and killed Boyd.
That incident and other ill-fated encounters spurred the city and county to invest more in crisis intervention – funding Mobile Crisis Teams, which pair officers and social workers, and giving all APD officers Crisis Intervention Training.
These trained officers respond to a variety of calls, from family disputes and suspicious people to high-stakes situations such as someone threatening to jump off an interstate bridge.
“Our efforts to change the culture at the police department are giving our officers more tools to have successful interactions with individuals in crisis,” Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement. “This approach, in addition to making behavioral health services more accessible, is helping us build a safer city and keep other critical resources targeted on violent crime.”
After reviewing the data book, County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said she was encouraged by the data.
“Most APD officers, at one time or another, will interact with somebody who’s in a behavioral health crisis,” Hart Stebbins said. “The fact that they’ve been trained in the appropriate response is a huge benefit to the community as a whole but particularly to those individuals.”
Much of the data released by APD was compiled from worksheets that are filled out by field officers after behavioral health-related encounters and detail the nature of each call, describe the person, whether they were armed and how the incident was resolved. Among the highlights from that data:
• Officers arrested about 3%, or 169 people, they encountered during a crisis intervention situation. In the vast majority of those encounters – 72% – officers transported the individual for emergency services. Another 20% were resolved with little or no action. In 57 of the encounters, or just under 1%, the individual committed suicide.
• Slightly more than 10% of the individuals with behavioral health issues that officers encountered last year were armed. Of those, 151 had a firearm; 410 had a knife or other cutting instrument; 32 had a blunt object and the other 35 had a different or unknown weapon.
• Officers suffered 20 injuries in 2018 while dealing with crisis intervention situations. Those injuries ranged from abrasions in 12 cases to bite marks in 2. One incident was classified as a biohazard contamination.
• Use of force was avoided in 98% of crisis intervention encounters. Officers used force in 1%, or 65, of those incidents. Although most use-of-force involved empty hand techniques or takedowns, police used a Taser on 17 people and shot at four, striking only one. It is unclear if that person died in the shooting. Of the 10 police shootings that occurred in 2018 – nine of them fatal – it is unclear to which one the data is referring, and an APD spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
The report does not contain data for prior years in these categories.
It does, however, delve into the number of individuals with repeated crisis intervention encounters with officers.
Of the 4,440 behavioral health encounters that the officers tracked, 806, or close to one in five, involved someone they encountered more than once. Specifically, 741 of those individuals had two to five encounters with the officers; 48 had six to 10 encounters; 13 had 11 to 19; three had 20 to 25 encounters; and one person had 52. The vast majority, however, nearly 82%, had only one encounter with officers.
Hart Stebbins said the high percentage of individuals being transported for services and the low percentage of use-of-force situations are positive signs.
“The goal is to get individuals the treatment they need in the appropriate setting, rather than getting tangled up in the criminal justice system,” she said. “We’re excited that we’re addressing this need … Are we a hundred percent there? No, but we’re making good progress and APD deserves a lot of credit for embracing this new strategy.”