“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” —Abraham Maslow
On Sunday, there were protests in Albuquerque, with police lobbing tear gas and angry and increasingly unruly crowds blocking streets and the Interstate near UNM and the Nob Hill area. All the result of festering anger over some 23 fatal shootings of civilians by APD officers over the last few years, culminating in the death of James Boyd, a mentally disturbed and occasionally violent homeless man camping out in the hills above the city.
According to a Journal poll, only 15 percent of those polled agree that the Boyd shooting was justified. The U.S. DOJ is investigating the constant shootings. Of course, reality is more complex than a yes vs. no poll, as Sunday’s Journal article showed in describing the astonishing failures of the mental health laws and criminal justice system as well as the police department in bringing this man to his sad and untimely death.
Albuquerque has some pretty rough people in it and I am sure a lot of these 23 and counting fatal shootings were unavoidable. We get the Albuquerque Journal and indeed it seems that many of the recipients of police-administered lead poisoning were armed, violent members of the Judicial Revolving Door Society, and often enough strung out on some sort of mind altering substance. This case seems quite different, and completely unnecessary.
Rather than just heaping blame and scorn on the cops in that picture or on a recently installed police chief who rushed perhaps too soon to defend this outcome on shaky legalistic grounds, one has to ask what drives such outcomes. First, there is our inability to treat mental illness of the indigent short of involuntary confinement, resulting in a “throw them out and let God sort it out” reality. Then there is the judicial revolving door, oftentimes even for serious crimes. Then there is the reliance on brute force, in part a long term development (see book link below) and at times seen as a requirement to facing the reality of a cop’s violence-drenched job in some of our major cities.
Recent reports out of the Santa Fe New Mexican on recently proposed police academy training methods claim the curriculum refers to cops as “warriors” who should treat every traffic stop as a potential firefight with armed, cold-blooded people. This has me worried that we have escalated the use of force, adversarial thinking, and paramilitary tactics to levels not appropriate to a civil society. From the New Mexican, describing draft Police Academy training methods: “Officers involved in even routine traffic stops should “always assume that the violator and all the occupants in the vehicle are armed.” “Most suspects are mentally prepared to react violently.”
Gee, does that include soccer moms and their kids or just members of minority groups with whom you are festering a prejudice? Think about that next time you are pulled over for a routine moving violation. “Excuse me, officer. I’m just reaching for my paperwork…yes, that’s a flashlight in the glove box and a cell phone on my belt. Honest, man, I can’t help it if I am young, male, and Hispanic.” I’ve asked Carol Clark of the Los Alamos Daily Post to get the full copy of the proposed curriculum, released under an Inspection of Public Records request, to see if reality is as grim as the New Mexican reports.
I wonder if there would be fewer police shootings of civilians in Albuquerque if the APD didn’t rely on Maslow’s Hammer. Plus, it sure would be nice if we had a successful and legally defensible way to deal with folks like James Boyd short of a fusillade of live rounds from cops and the failure of a revolving door mental health/criminal justice system that routinely fails us all. This whole rotten system needs overhaul. But that includes a serious, unbiased legal investigation of the police behavior on Sunday, 16 March, the day that James Boyd met his untimely end. Actions have consequences.
Worth reading: “Rise of the Warrior Cops” by Radley Balco. Plus, let’s be careful out there. All of us.