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APD Policy on Mentally Ill Flexible

By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          A SWAT team and crisis negotiator might have been sent to the home of Christopher Torres earlier this month had Albuquerque Police Detective Christopher Brown known Torres had struggled for years with paranoid schizophrenia.
        Or, Brown and his partner, Richard Hilger, who went to the home to arrest Torres on a felony road rage warrant, might have just called for backup officers or tried to get information from family and friends of Torres, who police say was shot by Brown after Torres managed to wrest away Hilger's gun during a struggle.
        But again, they might not have.
        In this case, it's all speculation because Brown and Hilger were not aware of Torres' mental illness. Torres' family has contended that they should have been aware of Torres' history of mental illness because of a previous encounter with police — and that APD would have handled the matter differently had they known.
        Would they?
        APD's 12-page standard operating procedure on dealing with the mentally ill is one of the department's most comprehensive, with lots of room for interpretation. The department is also looking into the possibility of setting up a database that would give officers more information on mentally ill suspects.
        Police Chief Ray Schultz and one of the city's leading advocates for the mentally ill agree that a flexible policy is a good approach to a highly complex issue.
        "It's a very delicate balancing act," the chief said in an interview. "The mental health providers will tell you that sometimes an additional presence of force has the opposite effect to what you're looking for. You want to be a calming presence, and sometimes a minimal response is the right way to go."
        Jim Ogle, president of the Albuquerque chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said after reviewing a copy APD's policy that it "looks reasonable."
        "The issue comes down to how (the policy) is implemented and when the different processes happen," Ogle said. "The issue of bringing a SWAT team in — people with mental illness don't like that.
        "The relationship between the police and people living with mental illness is like a shotgun wedding: neither one really likes it. But obviously you have to balance safety issues with that."
        As it happened, all Brown and Hilger had in their possession shortly after 2 p.m. on April 12 was a newly signed felony warrant for Torres' arrest that alleged he had tried to pull a woman from her car at a traffic light on Paseo del Norte on Feb. 17.
        Hilger and Brown also knew that APD had received 25 calls for aggressive driving and "road rage" incidents between Jan. 25 and March 29 involving the black Ford Mustang that Torres was driving Feb. 17.
        But the detectives did not know Torres had been arrested three days after that incident, on Feb. 20, when he allegedly attacked an armed man in a Taylor Ranch restaurant and told police "satellites are observing us" and that he was on medication for schizophrenia, according to police.
        And they didn't know that twice in January 2003, APD officers went to the Torres home after family members had called about Christopher Torres behaving erratically.
        On both occasions, family members told officers that Torres, who is the son of Deputy Bernalillo County Manager Renetta Torres, was schizophrenic.
        All three of those incidents are documented in public police and court records.
        Schultz said he doesn't know whether it would have changed how Brown and Hilger approached the situation had they been aware of Torres' condition.
        That is, in part, because APD's policy only authorizes using the SWAT team on a "high-risk" warrant. Using the SWAT team would have meant cordoning off the area and establishing a line of communication before attempting to approach the suspect.
        Schultz said the warrant for Torres' arrest likely wouldn't have met that criterion because he didn't have any violent felony convictions or a history of violence with police.
        The detectives might, however, have been obliged to call for additional backup, he said.
        Brown has received APD's crisis intervention training, which includes techniques on how to deal with the mentally ill, Schultz said. Hilger is scheduled to receive the training.
        As with all incidents that end with an officer using deadly force, APD is trying to learn and improve, he said.
        Department officials have been discussing for months establishing an internal "matrix," or database of information about mentally ill people in the community who have had contact with law enforcement.
        Schultz and Ogle agreed that such a database could be useful but that it would have to remain confidential.
        "I think it's a good idea," Ogle said. "The police need to understand where they're going and what they're going to run into. They need to address someone with a mental illness differently than they address someone else. Things that can de-escalate a situation with one person can actually escalate it with a person living with mental illness if you treat them wrong."
        Torres was the 16th person shot by police since January 2010. Eleven of those shootings were fatal.
        Ogle said the recent spike in officer-involved shootings has chilled the important relationship between police and the families of the mentally ill.
        "That needs to be a good relationship," he said. "Families need to feel comfortable with calling the police. Right now, that relationship isn't very good. There are a lot of people who are very leary about calling the police."
        He said APD could improve the relationship by educating the public about its training and procedures and building personal relationships between its crisis intervention-trained officers and families.

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