Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

City Police Wrestle With Spike in Shootings

By Astrid Galvan
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          One day before Len Fuentes was shot and killed by Albuquerque police, he promised his mother he was getting his life together, that drugs, alcohol and mental illness would control him no more.
        That didn't happen.
        He drank — a violation of his parole — and after hours of intense arguments with his girlfriend, a neighbor finally called police.
        It took only minutes for the city's ninth officer-involved shooting of the year to unfold, as a knife-wielding Fuentes was shot by police.
        On Tuesday, less than a month later, police were involved in the year's 10th shooting. Enrique Carrasco, 38,was the seventh person killed by police this year. There were six officer-involved shootings in all of last year.
        All of this year's cases are still under investigation, but Chief Ray Schultz says it appears each involved a situation that escalated quickly, giving officers little choice. Many of the cases, Schultz said, involved an assault on the officer.
        Carrasco, for example, attacked a police officer with a knife, going so far as to break out the window of the officer's patrol car, police said. And it wasn't the first time he had gone after an officer. He had a felony conviction for biting and breaking the finger of a deputy a decade ago and had been arrested before on charges of resisting and assaulting an officer.
        Mayor Richard J. Berry said he has asked Public Safety Director Darren White to find an independent agency such as the Police Executive Research Forum to review trends in this year's shootings. He lauded APD and said officers are facing more and more dangerous situations. "I want to know why our officers are being attacked," Berry said. "Another set of eyes — that's perfectly legitimate."
        Investigation reports have not been made available on this year's shootings, and what is known reveals few common themes. But according to information released by APD:
        • All of the people shot had weapons, in most cases, guns. Other weapons included knives and cars.
        • All were men, and all but two had criminal histories. One 26-year-old robbery suspect had been arrested 19 times before being shot dead by police in a Walmart parking lot after using his Jeep to attack officers.
        • The shootings don't appear to be concentrated in high-crime areas and have happened all over the city.
        • Some shootings unfolded after traffic stops, others after officers responded to calls. One happened after a woman called 911 from the trunk of a car to report she had been kidnapped.
        Lethal vs. nonlethal
        The number of officer-involved shootings around the region varies widely. For example, Denver and Oklahoma City police each had seven police-involved shootings this year. In both cases, four of the seven shootings were fatal. Mesa and Tucson in Arizona have had none.
        National experts say police-involved shootings fluctuate through the years.
        David A. Klinger is an associate professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and an expert on use of force who is serving as senior researcher for the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C.
        He said the number of shootings in Albuquerque, considering the size of the city and size of its police force, is not alarming.
        "What you have going on is sort of random fluctuation around a mean of seven or eight shootings a year, and that's really not unexpected," Klinger said.
        However, Klinger pointed out that the number of deaths is mildly high. Fatality rates for people shot by police in cities as large as New York are as low as 50 percent, Klinger said.
        Schultz said his officers are trained in nonlethal force, including Tasers and beanbag guns, but those tools are not always feasible or appropriate. What's more, police are taught to use equal force, meaning that if a suspect is threatening an officer with a deadly weapon — and that includes a knife — the officer will use the same amount of force.
        "You're not going to take a less lethal weapon into a lethal situation," Schultz said.
        About half of APD's officers carry beanbag shotguns, while almost all carry Tasers.
        A beanbag gun, Schultz said, can be used when an officer has preliminary information involving such things as mental illness or violent criminal history. It is not a good reactive tool, because once a beanbag shotgun has been brandished, it's difficult to switch to a handgun.
        Schultz said that his officers have not put themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations and that each shooting this year involved an assault on an officer in a "life or death" situation.
        APD critics
        Some families have questioned whether officers could have avoided deadly force.
        "What they did is they cornered (Fuentes)," said his mother, Sylvia Fuentes. "I feel they could have defused the situation."
        She suggested that officers should have used a Taser or pepper spray on her son, whom she described as loving, devoted to his family and turning his life around.
        Fuentes spent almost eight years in a California prison for a motorcycle accident in which he was drunk and his girlfriend was killed. He was off his medications for schizophrenia when officers responded to a call made by a neighbor.
        Police said officers approached Fuentes, who had his back to them, and told him to turn around so they could see if he had a weapon. He ignored several commands before complying.
        Officer Anthony Glodon then noticed that Fuentes had a knife in his waistband and alerted the other officer, Jeremy Hollier. .
        Fuentes reached for the knife, and Glodon grabbed his arm, according to a search warrant affidavit. Eventually, Fuentes slipped out of the officer's grasp and backed away, raising the knife in his right hand. Both officers raised their weapons and ordered him to drop the knife, to which Fuentes responded, "Shoot me, (expletives)!"
        Fuentes then allegedly lunged at the officers. Hollier fired two shots at Fuentes, hitting him in the chest and the stomach.
        Fuentes' mother asks why the officers didn't order her son to go inside instead of initiating a confrontation. Police said maintaining visual contact is essential to officer safety.
        Officers are trained how to handle "people being in crisis," Schultz said, but, in Fuentes' case, police were unaware of his mental illness.
        "We train the officer to try to de-conflict the situation and to try to get everyone to calm down," he said. "The last thing we want to do is have to resort to force."
        Police have also been criticized for shooting Chris Hinz, 43, who died in June outside his home in the Northeast Heights.
        A neighbor had reported that Hinz was intoxicated and holding a gun. When officers arrived, they heard shots fired inside. After police made several attempts to get Hinz to come out, the single father of one finally came out of the house through the garage. He brandished his rifle at police before two SWAT officers shot him, police said.
        Hinz' supporters decried the incident at a candlelight vigil and later at a City Council meeting. In e-mails to Schultz and city counselors, friends asked why officers didn't try to shoot the rifle out of Hinz's hands.
        Schultz said police are trained to shoot at the largest target area, usually the chest.
        "You can't try shooting at somebody's hand when people are moving and things are happening," Schultz said. "It's impractical."
        It is also policy to shoot twice. There is no policy mandating how many times an officer must tell a suspect to drop a weapon.
        Members of a coalition headed by Vecinos United, a police watchdog group, said they are planning a protest Sept. 8 at APD headquarters against police shootings.
        Every shooting by an APD officer is investigated by multiple jurisdictions, including the Office of the Medical Investigator, State Police, Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's Office.
        Their findings are eventually sent to the DA's Office, which usually presents the case to a grand jury to decide whether an officer should be charged.
        Shootings are also investigated administratively.
        Internal Affairs looks into whether policy was followed and whether firearm use was justifiable. That investigation is reviewed through the chain of command and forwarded to the city's Independent Review Officer and the Police Oversight Commission, composed of citizens. None of the cases this year has made it to the POC review.
        A critical incident review board also examines three key components that contribute to use of force: policy, training and equipment.
        The process can take up to 240 days, and Schultz said he cannot recall a grand jury's finding an officer-involved shooting unjustified.
        By the numbers
        Officer-involved shootings in cities of similar size
        Tucson: 8
        Mesa: 3
        Denver: 4
        Oklahoma City: 3
        So far in 2010
        Tucson: 0
        Mesa: 0
        Denver: 7
        Oklahoma City: 7
        Source: Journal interviews

Call 505-823-4400 to subscribe
Submit a news tip | E-mail reporter