A domestic violence suspect holed up in an apartment with his ex-girlfriend points a so-called “pirate gun” at SWAT officers after they enter.
A woman who has a mental illness approaches deputies while armed with a knife.
A man points a gun at police after running away from a stolen vehicle in a residential neighborhood.
These are three of the 14 people law enforcement personnel shot at in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County in 2019.
In all, on-duty law enforcement shot at slightly fewer people in 2019 in the Albuquerque metro area than they did the year before, when they shot at 17 people. The tally does not include an incident in June in which a Utah veterinarian threatened his ex-girlfriend, an off-duty FBI agent, with a gun at a crowded brewery before her friend, another off-duty agent, shot and killed him.
Around the state, 42 people were shot at by law enforcement — 16 of whom were killed — which is also a slight decrease from the 47 who were shot at — 20 of whom were killed — in 2018, according to New Mexico State Police.
New Mexico had the highest per capita rate of fatal police shootings in the nation in 2018. New Mexico was No. 3 in 2019, behind Oklahoma and Alaska. The rates come from a database published each year by The Washington Post.
All eight people Albuquerque Police Department officers shot, or shot at, last year were armed with a gun — or a BB gun that closely resembled a real gun. That fact that stood out to Lt. Scott Norris of the Violent Crimes Section, who oversees criminal investigations into the shootings. Four people were killed, three were injured, and one was not struck.
“It goes along with the same theme that we’re all experiencing — the gun violence in Albuquerque,” Norris said in an interview late last month. “It affects our officers just as much as it affects the citizens.”
He said three of the guns involved had been reported stolen.
Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies shot at four people: One was armed with a gun, two were armed with knives, and one was allegedly using a stolen vehicle as a weapon. Two of the people who were shot at were not hit. One of the two people who were hit was killed.
New Mexico State Police officers stationed in Albuquerque for an operation over the summer shot at two people in Bernalillo County. officers cited vehicles as the threat. One person was injured, and the other was not struck.
The number of shootings by APD officers has fluctuated over the years. The highest number was 15 in 2010; nine of them were fatal. The number has ranged between five and 10 since the city signed its court-approved settlement agreement in 2014. The agreement mandated reforms of the police department after a Department of Justice investigation found officers had a pattern of using excessive force.
However, there have been fewer high-profile shootings since the deaths of James Boyd — a mentally ill homeless man camping in the Foothills in 2014 — and Mary Hawkes — a 19-year-old woman who was on the run through Southeast Albuquerque a month and a half later.
The consent decree does not prevent officers from shooting people who present a threat to them or a civilian, Norris said, but it does mandate de-escalation to try to prevent a situation from getting to that point.
“Our use of force policy stresses de-escalation,” he said. “Slowing the situation down, calling on as many resources as you can, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on and what’s the best, most peaceful alternative or result that we can come up with relative to the threat this person is presenting.”
Last year, the department implemented its retooled court-mandated Force Review Board, a body of deputy chiefs and other high-level officers, to review Internal Affairs investigations and look at gaps in policies and procedures.
“If they see a policy deficiency, they bring up a concern,” said Commander Cori Lowe of the Accountability and Oversight Division. “Maybe we don’t have it in policy, but we realize it probably should be so the board has the ability to make a referral to do that.”
Lowe said the board started reviewing SWAT calls in August, and in December it moved on to use-of-force cases. So far, it has looked at three use-of-force cases, including one shooting by an officer, although Lowe couldn’t say which one.
Paul Haidle, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a member of the APD Forward coalition, said coalition members overall have seen progress in the way officers are using deadly force, although there is still a way to go.
“I think the police department is doing a good job at de-escalating a lot of situations and using force only as a last resort. That’s what we want them to do and what the consent decree outlines,” Haidle said. “I know there were a couple APD-involved shootings that come to mind where there were still questions about could the situation have been de-escalated further and was that the appropriate response.”
Of the four people who were shot at by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies in 2019, one was killed, one person was injured, and two were not hit.
The death of Elisha Lucero — who was fatally shot in July when deputies responding to a misdemeanor battery call said she ran at them with a knife, screaming — renewed calls for deputies to be equipped with cameras. Her family said Lucero, 28 had a mental illness, and they, along with the ACLU, have been rallying for lapel cameras, or at least dashboard cameras. Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has resisted the use of cameras.
The shooting also prompted Bernalillo County commissioners to allocate $1 million for lapel cameras plus $500,000 in recurring annual funds; the sheriff has given no indication he will use the money.
BCSO homicide detective Samuel Rodriguez would not comment on the lapel camera issue, but in an interview last month he laid out the work that goes into investigating each case.
He said his investigators are paired with detectives from other departments in the Multi-Agency Task Force — which investigates all shootings by law enforcement in the metro area — and they interview witnesses and canvass the area for security camera video. The same protocol is followed for shootings by APD officers.
Rodriguez said he has the utmost confidence that the investigations are fair and impartial.
“I’m investigating a possible criminal prosecution for the suspect; I’m also investigating a possible criminal prosecution for the deputy as well,” Rodriguez said. “We look at both. Once that case is complete we send everything … to (the) district attorney and Internal Affairs.”
About a week after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered 50 New Mexico State Police Officers to patrol the streets of Albuquerque, two State Police officers in separate incidents shot at two suspects in vehicles, wounding one of them.
The shootings sparked criticism of the operation, as well as questions from the ACLU and APD Forward about the officers’ role in the city while it was undertaking a reform effort.
Haidle noted that the two shootings, at least on their face, appear to violate the court-ordered policies that forbid APD officers from shooting at moving vehicles except under limited circumstances.
“The more nefarious part of all this is if NMSP and BCSO is allowed to come in and play by their own set of rules, what does that do to undermine the consent decree,” he said. “… That can’t help but undermine the consent decree and undermine the officers’ faith in this long process that we’re engaged in that it’s the right thing to do.”
Haidle said he hopes that as the governor, mayor and law enforcement find new strategies to curb persistently high violent crime in the area — including by ramping up the presence of state, federal and county officers — the city doesn’t return to the same problems that led to the Department of Justice investigation in the first place.