Albuquerque Incident Highlights Police Actions Toward Mentally Ill

By:  Warren Mass
Albuquerque Incident Highlights Police Actions Toward Mentally Ill

That fatal March 16 police shooting of James Boyd — a homeless man with a history of mental illness — in the Sandia Foothills near Albuquerque has raised questions about whether or not the police acted excessively.

AP, citing statements from local police authorities, reported that Albuquerque police fatally shot James Boyd following an hours-long standoff. Police say Boyd threatened to kill the officers attempting to arrest him with a small knife, after which police utilized stun guns and bean bags, deployed a flash grenade, and fired six rounds of ammunition at him. Boyd died from his injuries the next day.

However, video taken by an officer’s helmet camera showed Boyd agreeing to walk down the mountain with the police, collecting his belongings, and obeying the commands of police to lie down. It is not certain from the video which sounds emanated from bean bag guns and which were produced by other weapons, so the sequence of shots is unclear. However, Boyd appeared to be compliant. The police justified the shooting, saying Boyd had pulled out two knives and threatened their lives.

Boyd had a history of mental illness and apparently believed he was a Defense Department agent, telling the officers:  “Don’t attempt to give me, the Department of Defense, another directive.”

“I think that this issue [of police apprehension of the mentally ill] hits every city, every part of the country where you have people who are walking on the street who normally would have been under some kind of treatment or institutionalized,” the New York Times quoted Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. The Times noted that the group, a Washington-based nonprofit, released a report in 2012 calling for minimizing the use of force by the police in situations involving mental illness.

The video footage of the incident released by the Albuquerque Police Department has fueled protests — some of them violent — in Albuquerque and prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin an inquiry into the fatal shooting.

The Christian Science Monitor reported on March 29 that the FBI had announced the previous day that they had launched a criminal probe into Boyd’s shooting. That bureau’s announcement was also the first acknowledgement of a civil rights investigation the Department of Justice has been conducting for several years in Albuquerque. The Monitor noted that Albuquerque officers have racked up 23 fatal shootings in the last three years, which places it among the highest per capita killing rates in the country.

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Photo: screen-grab from video of shooting taken by an officer's helmet camera

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