Beyond Hero vs. Villain: Why we’re building a database to track officer involved shootings in Albuquerque

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Someone told me a story recently.

Her close friend has an African-American son who has a mental illness, so she worries about what might happen to him.

Sometimes, he wanders. When that happens, his family waits with breath held, anticipating the phone call for hours or days and hoping it begins with a calm, “Got someone here that wants to talk with you,” rather than the jumble of official language all in a rush indicating he’s in a hospital, a jail or worse.

He is not aggressive and is almost certainly not a threat to himself or anyone else, but they fear that won’t matter, particularly if he runs into a police officer who doesn’t understand his situation and interprets his erratic behavior as threatening. For his family, the oft-repeated “most police are good and would do the right thing” contrasts with the statistical reality that their son’s skin color makes him more likely to be killed by police—and probably his struggle with a mental illness, too.

When they get the call from anyone other than police, they breathe a sigh of relief because they know what could happen and have seen headlines that hint at the anguish other families like theirs go through.

When it comes to officer-involved shootings that end in a fatality, people talk about context all the time, usually as a nod to the painful truth that we can rarely prove direct cause and effect.

Among the things I’ve heard:

Yes, of course it matters that the person shot dead is a young black man, and that does seem to happen a lot. But he shouldn’t have been arguing with the police officer, and if he’d just followed orders it never would have ended that way.

Police don’t seem to get it. We’re not asking them to never shoot anyone . We know there are realities of the job . But we’re asking them to provide concrete information when it happens and to ask tough questions internally about the how and why. And if that can’t happen internally, then it needs to happen with oversight from outside the department.

The public doesn’t understand how hard a police officer’s job is. They don’t get that you can’t shoot to disarm someone and that once lethal force is engaged, it’s hard to go back.

I’ve looked at the use-of-force continuum, and I want to know why police in Albuquerque go so quickly from 0–60 MPH.

Note: Each local police department has their own use-of-force policy, but it is typically guided by federal force continuum models like this one

As someone who’s been passionate about the news my whole life, I’ve learned to ask good questions. And while it may be a staple of journalism, the skill also has implications for policymakers and the public at large when talking about officer-involved shootings.

Context means going beyond simple “cops are thugs” vs. “cops are heroes who can do no wrong” narratives, and asking questions like:

  • What should the primary mission of local police be? Is it about being tough on crime? Is it to help build community? Something else?
  • How often is excessive use of force actually occurring and to whom?
  • What happens if police who act unethically and illegally aren’t held accountable or those actions questioned? Does that reinforce the behavior? (Even the former police officers say yes, it probably does.)

But context is not just something talked about. It is something lived.

Context is knowing that James Boyd, the man whose death thrust APD into an international spotlight, had interacted with the police and justice system previously and had a reputation for   being combative.

Context is knowing that “combativeness” was a part of his struggle with a mental illness that led him to believe he worked for the Department of Defense.

Context is knowing that there are serious questions about the effectiveness of mental health treatment in New Mexico and hints of political gamesmanship around how it is provided.

Context is knowing that one of the officers who shot Boyd made point blank comments about doing so before even arriving at the scene or being briefed about what was happening.

Context is knowing the Albuquerque Police Department has a crisis intervention unit but very little visibility about when and how they use the unit. (For reasons unknown they were not deployed in the Boyd case.)

These things don’t exist in isolation.

To respond to this:

Yes, of course it matters that the person shot dead is a young black man, and that does seem to happen a lot. But he shouldn’t have been arguing with the police officer, and if he’d just followed orders it never would have ended that way.

You have to first know that black males in cities like New York are stopped at a much higher rate than any other group, suggesting that there is already an unequal application of the law to minority groups.

And that in Ferguson, a similar ratio exists, despite the fact that whites who are stopped are more likely to have contraband on them.

And to respond to this:

The public doesn’t understand how hard a police officer’s job is. They don’t get that you can’t shoot to disarm someone, and that once lethal force is engaged, it’s hard to go back.

It’s important to understand that there is no uniform use-of-force policy for police departments nationwide, and even supposedly non-lethal force like Tasers can kill someone if used improperly / excessively.

Why a database of officer involved shootings in Albuquerque?

A reporter posed a question to me the other day, saying “So are you pro-cops? Or what side are you on?”

I’m also often asked if providing open access to public records will simply make things worse and / or make police look bad.

Sometimes, I’m even asked if I believe that we have a problem. If you read the DOJ report closely, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion, particularly since the city has refused to either deny or confirm there is a problem.

It’s worth noting that the New Mexico Compass is a nonprofit journalism startup. We don’t have a side and don’t plan to pick any, and the fact that even reporters are asking this question says something about the environment here.

But that’s part of what makes this project so interesting and necessary: Police, policymakers and the public can’t offer solutions unless we are all committed to asking the right questions.

Are the mentally ill disproportionately affected by fatal police shootings in Albuquerque? A lot of people think so (and we suspect this is the case), but no one really knows.

How many fatal or non-fatal shootings are there? Since the most reliable means of tracking this right now is to scan newspaper headlines, no one really knows.

How often are officers using non or less-lethal force compared to lethal force? Has that number increased over the years?

What’s the difference between how a crisis intervention unit responds to a difficult situation vs. how the repeat offender unit does?

Of course we can’t answer all of these yet. It’s simply too much for one small, not-yet-funded journalism startup to tackle.

But many of the critical stories and much of data exist, and we believe putting them together will help all stakeholders—law enforcement, policymakers, journalists, citizens—ask further questions and figure out what comes next.

If you, too, believe that opening up the gates and providing context matters, I hope you’ll take a moment to support our crowdfunding campaign for the database sometime between now and 11:59 pm PST on Wednesday night.

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