We know what was on James Boyd’s mind just before he was shot by Albuquerque police. It’s caught on tape.
“In the private world, if we were down at a bar or at a bus stop, I’d have the right to kill you right now because you’re trying to take me over,” he tells the cops who have persuaded him to walk down the mountain with them. He adds, “Don’t get stupid with me.”
Boyd had been ranting – at times paranoid, at times grandiose – for several hours. But he sounded pretty sensible in the minute before he was fatally shot.
“All right. Don’t change up the agreement. I’m gonna try to walk with you. … Keep your word. I can keep you safe. All right? Don’t worry about safety. I’m not a (expletive) murderer, all right? It’s fine. I’m not gonna harm you. I’m not gonna harm you.”
In his life, Boyd, 38, was another anonymous transient. In his death, he has become a symbol of the Albuquerque Police Department’s use of deadly force. The department has killed 23 men since 2010.
He could just as well be a symbol of the failure of our systems for taking care of the chronic mentally ill.
The nation underwent a transformation 50 years ago in how people with mental illness are treated. State psychiatric hospitals were closed without much of a plan for what to do with hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people being released.
The deinstitutionalization process shifted many of the mentally ill to underfunded community mental health centers or to the streets, jails and prisons, and the care of ill-equipped and overwhelmed family members.
In Albuquerque, the results are obvious every day – Downtown, where Boyd was one of the homeless wanderers; in the shelters and under bridges, where they sleep; and in the county jail, where we put them when they become combative and break the law.
Homeless shelters, streets, cheap motels and jails have become our de facto mental hospitals, and the stage is set for tragic confrontations.
We don’t know what Omaree Varela’s last words were.
Omaree, 9, who died in December of injuries to his head, chest, abdomen, arms, legs, even inside his mouth – beaten on just about every part of his small body – has become a symbol, too.
Unlike Boyd, who was big and mouthy and profane, Omaree is the silent symbol of the failure of our child protective services system, looking up at a police lapel camera with a poker face and big eyes.
Child abuse is usually a family secret, but Omaree’s secret got out over and over again. His autopsy report reveals that people reported his abuse to the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department on nine occasions.
CYFD opened cases as a result of only two of those referrals, and we know Omaree’s name today because he remained in his home and was killed there.
Like policies governing the mentally ill, child welfare policies in this country have also shifted over time.
Before the late 1800s, well-meaning friends, relatives and neighbors or orphanages stepped in to care for abused or neglected children. By the early 1900s, private homes run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children dotted the country. It wasn’t until the 1930s that government accepted a role in children’s welfare and the foster care system took hold. And it wasn’t until mandatory abuse reporting laws were enacted in the 1960s that the ranks of foster children began to swell to alarming levels.
In reaction to hundreds of thousands of children in long-term foster care, the system began to turn toward the “family preservation” model that has been the norm since the 1980s. It strives to keep children with their families, and it mostly does, but it can also lead to little boys like Omaree being taken to the morgue.
There’s been ample fault finding for the deaths of Boyd and Omaree – and I’ve done my share. But individuals – police officers, a violent mother, overburdened social workers – work in systems, and systems failed, too.
How should we fix these systems so that the mentally ill are treated and kept safe from hurting themselves and others, and so abused kids can be kept safe from violent family members?
At the core of both problems is how to better balance individual liberties with protection and the community good.
I wish I had something wise to offer as a solution, but I don’t have the answers.
I do know that in the past three months, since Omaree Varela and James Boyd came into my consciousness, I’ve been thinking differently about where I live and how we take care of one another.
It feels like we’re at a turning point. But turning toward what?