The southwestern city of Albuquerque, New Mexico is experiencing what may be one of the highest rates of police-involved shootings in the nation. It's trying to find out why.
Kenneth Ellis III survived combat wounds in Iraq as well as seeing his best friend die, but on the night of Jan. 13, 2010, he was shot and killed by Albuquerque, NM police outside a convenience store. He had refused to put down a gun which he had pointed at his head after a traffic stop for a minor violation.
Ellis’s death proved to be only the second of nine officer-involved shooting deaths so far this year (and one of 14 shootings of civilians)–a statistic that has given the Albuquerque Police Department the grim distinction of being among the highest per capita officer-involved shooting rates in the country.
While many police departments in the nation have seen a decrease in such shootings, Albuquerque has experienced a surge of nearly 300 percent over the past five years. That puts this scenic city, with a population of 530,000, far above comparably sized departments in the region, among cities for which such figures are available.
The Alibi, a weekly alternative Albuquerque newspaper, published an article in October comparing similar sized cities and their officer involved shootings with Albuquerque. The report found that for 2010, Albuquerque is averaging 2.63 shooting per 100,000 residents. This is compared to Long Beach, Calif., with 1.07; Kansas City, Mo., with 1.61; Oklahoma City, 1.61; Tucson, had an astonishing zero officer involved shootings; Mesa, Ariz., .21; and Sacramento, .85.
On a larger scale, Albuquerque exceeds New York City which had 32 officer involved shootings representing .38 per 100,000 residents. Oklahoma City however, jumped from three shootings in 2009 to nine in 2010 and Sacramento went from zero to four. The most remarkable one-year drop was Long Beach which went from 17 shootings in 2009 to five in 2010 (YTD). And it's raising questions about the quality of training in the use of lethal force in Albuquerque's 980-officer police department.
To help him figure out what, if anything, has gone wrong, Police Chief Ray Schultz signed a $53,000 contract earlier this month with the Washington, DC-based Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to examine the shootings and make recommendations to the department.
In an interview with The Crime Report, Schultz wasn't ready to blame his officers. “I am not seeing any issues pointing towards our deadly force policy,” Schultz said. “But we are seeing a higher number of encounters with people with mental illness.”
Schultz conceded that his officers will sometimes “ramp up” the force necessary to subdue a suspect, But he also pointed out that Albuquerque cops used their tasers 190 times last year, which for a city of half-million, is a relatively small number.
“Nobody wants to be involved in an officer shooting, our goal is not to use any force,” Schultz said. The PERF study “will be a broad spectrum study of victim-history commonality, commonality between officers involved in shootings and any other factors we can address,” he explained.
On the surface, Schultz said that there is little in common with most of the shootings, saying they occurred in different parts of the city, at different times of day, with officers of varying years of experience. Four of the victims, however, were known to be suffering from some form of mental illness.
But he conceded that the rise in officer-involved shootings was hard to ignore. Over the past two years the numbers took a significant jump from a low of three shootings with two deaths in 2005, to six shootings and three deaths in 2009. Those figures have nearly doubled by the end of 2010.
A Violent Town
But the numbers don't seem to have set off any alarms among local law enforcement authorities. “We tend to be somewhat of a violent town,” Chief Public Safety Officer Darren White observed at an Albuquerque City Council meeting in September.
That's backed up by the numbers. According to the 2009 FBI Uniform Crime Reports, which lists reported crimes, Albuquerque had 4,082 incidents of violent crime.
Perhaps ironically, White's comments were made as part of an appeal to City Council to commission the PERF study–not to address police shootings, but to explore the causes of violence in the city. But similar-sized southwest cities with similar crime rates have not seen a rise in officer-involved shootings. Quite the opposite.For example, Tucson, Ariz., has 1,388 police officers and a population of 547,981. According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports statistics, there were 3,560 violent crimes in 2009. Yet police shootings there have decreased from 13 in 2005 to zero in 2010.
In the same article in the Alibi, the author found Kansas City to have the highest UCR violent crime rate of the cities examined with 6,303 incidents, nearly 40 percent higher than Albuquerque but with eight less shootings. El Paso, Texas?just yards from the Mexican border town of Juarez, often dubbed the “Murder Capital of the World” because of the homicidal activities of drug cartels?has a population of 618,812, but experienced just 2,830 incidents of violent crime in 2009.
So far this year, there have been only two officer-involved shootings in El Paso. Neither resulted in fatalities.
To civic activists in Albuquerque, the burden of solving the problem rests largely on police. Several have called for improvements in existing crisis intervention training for police.
That might have saved the life of Len Fuentes. On July 27, Fuentes,41, was fatally shot by police after he pulled a knife on an officer during a domestic dispute call. Fuentes allegedly suffered from mental illness. It was not reported how far Fuentes was from the officer when he was shot twice.
At an Albuquerque City Council meeting on Nov. 15, Fuentes’s grieving mother, Sylvia, said the incident had changed forever the image she had of police. “Up until July 27, 2010, I had nothing but praise for the Albuquerque Police Department,” Fuentes said. ” But on July 27, I saw a different kind of officer: one that will kill because he could.”
The eleventh officer-involved shooting involved a 19-year-old who was wielding a serrated butter knife. The suspect was wounded, and also may have been suicidal. Officers had gone to his home after receiving a report about a man who cut his wrists.
Crisis Intervention Training
Granting the Crimereport with the first interview since her brother's death. Jonelle Ellis said the 30 hours officers receive in the academy in crisis intervention and the lack of required continuing education is at the crux of the APD's problem. Ironically, Ellis is a nurse at the Albuquerque VA Hospital where she has seen the impact of PTSD. Since her brother's shooting she has become active involved in Copwatch, a national watchdog organization that oversees allegations of police brutality.
“It's really scary, everyday I see 20-40 patients, 10 percent of whom are in crisis, and realize that at any time they could come into contact with police who aren't trained to handle them,” Ellis said.
The intervention training officers receive in the 900-hour police academy course is insufficient to deal with the Albuquerque landscape. The department has no mandatory continuing education requirements for CIT Training and only 125 are actually certified. The Albuquerque Police Department does have a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) with 125 certified officers. But Schultz could not say during the interview whether any of those officers had been called to the scene of the 14 officer-involved shootings.
“Events escalate so quickly there isn’t always time to negotiate,” he explained.
Nevertheless, critics suggest that CIT training for Albuquerque police is not as rigorous as in other departments. There is no mandatory requirement for police to be briefed on crisis intervention once they graduate from the academy, and no refresher courses are offered. Ellis said she is not satisfied with Schultz's explanation and is working with a New Mexico state senator and representative to pass legislation to require police to require law enforcement officers in New Mexico to be refreshed in crisis intervention training every two. The bill also goes so far as to require chiefs to undergo CIT training. The proposed bill that will go before the New Mexico legislature in January is called the, “Kenneth Ellis III Act.”
Schultz insisted that the best training for crisis work is on the job. “Sometimes the best way to handle these situations is to constantly be with different people on the streets,” he said. “You need to have people who want to do that kind of work.”
This reasoning leaves Ellis scratching her head. On the day her brother was shot he was being talked to by one officer face-to-face, when another officer shot him in the neck from the side, virtually out of his field of vision. On Dec. 3, a Grand Jury found the shooting to be justified.
“We have 42 witness statements, the majority of whom feel Kenneth shot himself,” Ellis said. ” The officer he was talking to didn't even realize the other officer shot him.”
The Ellis family, despite the Grand Jury decision, will file a civil suit against APD. Things are different in El Paso, just four hours' drive to the south. Officers there are required to take at least four hours of CIT every other year, according to Assistant Chief of Police Peter Pacillas. A quarterly bulletin is also sent to the rank-and-file with tips from the EPD Crisis Management Team. Pacillas said this can include scenario based incidents with tips how defuse a suspect in crisis, whether to involved family in the negotiations, etc.
“We train our officers with shoot-no-shoot scenario based video training,” Pacillas said. The device is a wall sized video simulator where an officer is presented with different real-life scenarios and whether they should or should not fire the simulator weapon they are brandishing.
To further hone their crisis skills, each of El Paso's 1,085 officers will soon be required to take defensive tactics training.
The PERF study on Albuquerque is expected to be ready before the summer.
In the meantime Kenneth Ellis Jr., the dead soldier's father has the daunting task, through his anguish and anger, of educating his son's 5-year-old son about what happened.
“We went into a McDonald's recently and saw two officers eating lunch and he was reluctant to walk past them,” he said. “I continuously have to teach him that you can't go around being afraid of the police, and that they made a mistake with your dad.”
Joe Kolb is editor and publisher of The Gallup Herald in New Mexico
Photo courtesy Ellis family.