As the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department unfolds, Mayor Richard Berry and Chief Ray Schultz point out that they already have instituted more than 60 reforms on their own.
That’s good, because the shooting in November 2010 of a mentally disabled man by a police officer shows why those reforms were needed. In fact, the case of Russell Tenorio unfolds like an academy textbook of what not to do when called to a scene involving an inebriated, developmentally disabled man with a paring knife who has threatened himself.
♦ Don’t wait for the supervising sergeant to assess the situation. Instead, send four officers in with weapons drawn, shouting multiple commands, and expect to de-escalate what has been just a verbal situation.
♦ Don’t have the officers armed with the non-lethal bean-bag shotgun and Taser take the lead. Instead, have the cop with the .40-caliber handgun — known as “going lethal” in case deadly force is needed and appropriate — go in first.
♦ Don’t coordinate your approach. Instead, shout three different commands and expect a man with limited cognitive abilities to comply within three seconds.
♦ Don’t use time to re-assess a situation. Instead, arrest the wounded man on the day he gets out of the hospital after losing a kidney and part of his intestines; charge him with aggravated assault on a police officer as well as resisting, evading or obstructing an officer; then hold him in jail for almost two weeks, only to have a judge dismiss the case.
♦ Don’t work with the family that called you to the scene. Instead, handcuff the brother-in-law, who was simply trying to calm the man down, and shove him into the back of a squad car. Shove the sister-in-law into the back of a second squad car and deny her use of a bathroom, forcing her to wet her pants. And shove the wife into the back of a third squad car and deny her use of her inhaler, forcing her to have an asthma attack.
In the days following the shooting, top police officials praised officers’ actions, saying they handled the situation by the book after Tenorio “lunged” at them with a knife — though transcripts of the four officers’ interviews with investigators reveal that none of them said Tenorio lunged or even raised his three-inch paring knife.
Attorneys for Tenorio, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against APD officer Brian Pitzer, who fired the shot, Schultz and the city for unspecified damages, alleging, among other things, that APD used excessive force.
This is the Tenorio family’s second court run at a by-the-book example of bad police work. Last November, Tenorio’s relatives sued the city in federal court for civil rights violations including unlawful detention and got a $275,000 settlement.
The city did not admit any liability. It didn’t have to. Shelling out more than a quarter of a million bucks does.
APD has instituted some important reforms since the Tenorio shooting. This is a good opportunity to review them juxtaposed against the facts of this case and see if they do the job.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.