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Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said he was surprised but honored to be appointed by Attorney General William Barr to be chairman of the Mental Illness Working Group, a subcommittee of a commission created by President Donald Trump to explore the issues that affect law enforcement’s ability to reduce crime.
“Basically, what I was told in just a very basic brief is to identify best practices for law enforcement and have cutting-edge ideas for these working groups,” Gonzales said in a phone interview Thursday, adding that the subcommittee has not met yet and that he has not received the details of what he’ll be doing.
Gonzales was not the only person to express surprise.
When told of the appointment, Shannon Kennedy, an attorney suing the Sheriff’s Office on behalf of the family of a mentally ill woman who was shot and killed by deputies last summer, called it “ironic.”
“He now has a position where he is serving not only a local community but, in a sense, the nation,” Kennedy said. “It’s stunning that of all the people … they’ve selected a man who knowingly refused to adopt policies that could have saved the life of a woman whose family was reaching out for help.”
The lawsuit filed by Elisha Lucero’s family alleges her death was caused partly by BCSO’s failure to authorize a SWAT team or a Mobile Crisis Team specializing in mental health calls to respond to Lucero after her uncle and cousin reported she was acting strange and experiencing psychosis. Lucero, who was nearly naked and armed with a knife, was shot at least 21 times, according to an autopsy report.
Gonzales said Thursday that he could not discuss the shooting because of the pending litigation.
Trump created the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice through an executive order in October. The commission is made up of police chiefs, state prosecutors, county sheriffs, rural and tribal authorities and federal agents and includes 15 working groups that explore a number of issues that affect public safety, officer health and wellness, technology and more, according to a news release announcing the sheriff’s appointment Monday. The commission is expected to meet monthly for the next year.
One of the working groups is the Mental Illness Working Group, headed by Sheriff Gonzales, a Democrat.
Gonzales said that as chairman, he will be working with criminal justice experts, both in and out of law enforcement, to compile a report on how law enforcement should work with people experiencing mental health problems.
“I’m looking forward to establishing these relationships with these different people throughout the country to figure out how to get the most thorough report out,” Gonzales said. “And to do the most thorough research so we can get accurate information back to the commission.”
He said his deputies are addressing the issue locally through the office’s Mobile Crisis Teams and crisis intervention training. In addition, he said, “we have always done mentally ill pickups for the courts, so we have intimate knowledge in this area.”
However, advocates for the mentally ill say they have seen great strides in the way the Albuquerque Police Department officers address this population but have not seen the same changes from the Sheriff’s Office.
Danny Whatley, co-chair of the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee, questioned whether someone from APD has been tapped for the subcommittee and pointed out that the Police Department is now leading trainings on the subject across the country. An APD spokesman did not respond to questions about its role in the presidential commission.
Max Kauffman, the mental health attorney in the misdemeanor division of the Law Offices of the Public Defender, agreed that APD has made a lot of progress. Part of that progress was due to the creation of the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee mandated in a settlement agreement reforming the Police Department.
“APD is aggressively pursuing system and policy changes. What is BCSO, under Sheriff Manuel Gonzales, doing to match that effort?” Kauffman wrote in a statement. “They aren’t as actively engaged in local collaborative groups as we would like them to be. From what we can see in our office, they aren’t coordinating their crisis intervention efforts with APD.”
Gonzales said he believes he was chosen for the position because of prior operations his office has done with federal agents, including Operation Triple Beam, which saturated certain areas within the city with law enforcement.
“I think that they’ve seen what we were doing and our level of commitment with collaboration when we were doing some of these operations and how much we did with so little,” Gonzales said.
Meanwhile, Gonzales has also said his office is going to apply for federal grants from the Department of Justice after the U.S. Attorney’s Office said this week that APD is not eligible for the grants due to Albuquerque’s status as a sanctuary city.
Asked why the Sheriff’s Office would be eligible, since Bernalillo County has declared itself an “immigrant-friendly county” a BCSO spokesman said: “The Sheriff’s Office is not in violation of either DOJ grant requirements or the county’s sanctuary status. The funding the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office is seeking, if granted, will increase our ability to be visible in high-crime areas, which is a major part of community interaction and collaborative policing.”