When the video starts, Albuquerque Police Department Officer Jose Ruiz is talking to Max Mitnik and his parents in front of their spacious home in the Tanoan gated community.
Mitnik, who has mental health issues and hadn’t been taking his medication, wanted to go to the University of New Mexico Hospital and said he was worried he would hurt his parents.
The group discussed the long wait times at the hospital, and Ruiz cautioned that 26-year-old Mitnik might be stuck in the back seat of a police cruiser – with handcuffs on – for an hour. The conversation in the afternoon of June 4 is casual and relaxed.
So, minutes later, when Ruiz shot Mitnik as he approached him inside the home, reportedly holding a paring knife, the parents reacted in shock.
“Did you really? Did you really?” Wanda Mitnik asked again and again, before going to her son to stanch the bleeding. “Why did you do that?”
Max Mitnik was shot in the head and hip. He was critically injured and spent about a month at the hospital before returning home. He is expected to undergo another neurosurgery soon, and physical and occupational therapy to re-learn how to do such basic tasks as walking and dressing himself.
His lawyer, Ryan Villa, said he’s seen the video and questions why the officer felt that Max Mitnik was a deadly threat.
“I don’t understand why the officer’s first reaction was to shoot Max,” Villa said. “Max hadn’t threatened anybody, he hadn’t acted violently toward anybody, he clearly was in a mental health crisis and self-harming. In the video, he’s asking for the officer to kill him, but he’s doing it in a way that’s about as subdued and calm as you could do it.”
Max Mitnik has not been charged with a crime and an APD spokesman said it does not appear that charges will be filed. He does not have a criminal history, prior contacts with APD’s Crisis Intervention Unit or mental health reports in police databases.
‘Please kill me, sir’
On Friday, APD officials released lapel camera video and a presentation laying out the events that led to the shooting on the 9800 block of Greenbriar NE last month.
Officer Ruiz, with the Northeast Area Command, has been with the department since 2007 and has not been involved in any other shootings. Although APD usually releases photos of officers in shootings, they did not do so this time because the company that has all its photos has been closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a police department spokesman.
Officer Ruiz has since returned from the standard paid administrative leave and remains in the same position, said Lt. Scott Norris with APD’s Violent Crime Section.
Norris said that, around 2 p.m. on June 4, Max Mitnik’s family called 911 to ask officers to take him to the hospital because he’d made comments about being afraid he was going to hurt them. After Officers Ruiz and Elycio arrived, they talked with the family for a little over 10 minutes as Max Mitnik tried to decide whether he wanted to go with them or be taken to the hospital by his parents. He’s an adult, and not accused of a crime, so the officers say they cannot force him to go with them.
Then, Max Mitnik went back inside the home and the officers requested a Mobile Crisis Team – a unit made up of a behavioral health clinician and an officer who responds to mental health calls.
Before the Mobile Crisis Team has a chance to be dispatched, Wanda Mitnik is heard screaming inside the house and Officer Ruiz runs inside, guided by Max Mitnik’s father to the bathroom where Mitnik has locked himself inside. Wanda Mitnik said her son was trying to stab himself in the neck.
Seconds later, Max Mitnik exits, bleeding from the neck and saying matter-of-factly, “I’m going to suffer a lot if I don’t kill myself, will you please kill me, sir. Kill me.”
The video shows Mitnik approaching the officer with something shiny in his hand. Police say he was holding a knife as he approached Ruiz, backing him into a bedroom. That’s when the officer fired. The Mitniks render aid, assisted by Officer Elycio, as Ruiz calls in shots fired.
Ruiz later told investigators he was afraid he was going to be cut and “furthermore, he thought he was going to be killed.”
The Multi-Agency Task Force, made up of detectives from APD, New Mexico State Police and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, is still investigating the incident.
When asked why Ruiz didn’t use less lethal options, Lt. Norris said the entire response is still under review by internal affairs. He said Ruiz was carrying a Taser at the time of the shooting.
“What we do know right now is the subject was closing distance on the officer with a knife raised to his hip,” Norris said. “We know this occurred within close quarters. The officer’s decisions are still being investigated and, after the investigation is completed, our force investigation division will forward their findings to our Force Review Board.”
He said the Force Review Board will evaluate whether “the officer’s tactics of drawing and exhibiting a weapon, and the use of deadly force in this instance met the standards expected of all of our officers.”
Lt. Norris, in response to questions, said the internal investigation will also look at whether Ruiz should have picked up the knife after the shooting, as it said he did in the search warrant.
“Those are the types of things we look at and, as I said earlier, if there is a deficiency in the policy, if the officer violated a policy, that will be addressed administratively,” Norris said. “All these investigations have a concurrent administrative investigation and criminal investigation. That is something that will obviously be something of note in the investigation and, if it’s out of policy, it will be addressed accordingly and, if it’s within policy, we can take a look at the policy and see if we can make that policy better.”
This is the fourth shooting by APD officers this year. Two of them were fatal.
Discussions about reforming police departments have been occurring around the country lately in response to recent high-profile deaths at the hands of officers.
Last month, Mayor Tim Keller announced that his administration hopes to create the Albuquerque Community Safety Department staffed with social workers and other civilians who can respond to some calls in the place of officers or firefighters.
Neither Lt. Norris nor Lt. Matt Dietzel with the Crisis Intervention Unit could say for certain whether this was the type of call that could in the future be handled by the Community Safety Department.
“This outcome was not one that anyone wanted,” Dietzel said. “This outcome was not how we want mental health calls to end, but at the same time, I can’t tell you for sure that this would be one that would definitely go to some other response type.”
Villa, Max Mitnik’s attorney, said that, since the shooting, the family has received an outpouring of support from friends, family and the community.
“People tell me what great people the Mitniks are, what a great person Max is, and how surprised they are …,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to the kind of person Max is. He was not a danger to anybody except for himself.”
Villa said he is dismayed that the officer didn’t use less lethal force or try to de-escalate the situation instead of shooting.
“You have to look at all the circumstances; if an officer is there to arrest a felon, a man accused of committing a dangerous crime, and he comes out of the bathroom with a knife, that’s different than someone who they’ve been told has a disorder and has not been taking his medication, and has not threatened anyone and who is saying ‘please kill me,’ ” Villa said. “There has to be different decision-making than ‘I’m going to pull my gun and fire it.’ ”
Villa said that, for this reason, he likes the idea of another set of responders, such as that proposed Community Safety Department.
“Nurses, social workers, other folks deal with people in mental health crisis, and deal with the same situation Officer Ruiz dealt with Max, and they don’t have guns, they don’t even have less-than-lethal weapons,” Villa said. “The vast majority of the time, they aren’t in danger because they know the person is not trying to hurt them.”