A crime scene investigator photographs evidence after officers shot and killed a man in the parking lot of the Albuquerque Police Department headquarters early Thursday morning. It was the 17th shooting involving APD this year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque police officers have shot at 54 people since 2018, 30 of whom were killed and 16 of whom were injured. The remaining 8 were not struck.

There has been an increase in shootings this year, with 17 so far – compared to 10 or fewer for each of the four previous years.

Officials with the Albuquerque Police Department presented graphs and discussed trends at a news conference Thursday morning – about eight hours after officers shot and killed a man they said lunged at them with a knife in the parking lot of the department’s headquarters. Officers also shot and killed someone on Saturday.

Chief Harold Medina said he thinks the impacts of the pandemic – including a nationwide increase in suicides and homicides – have played a role in the jump in police shootings locally.

“Look, there were more firearms sold during the pandemic than probably any other period of time in this country,” he said. “I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but seeing that we have individuals who may not have been responsible, who didn’t have a firearm before, that now felt that during that time frame they wanted to be armed – they just maybe don’t understand some of the things that potentially go wrong with that.”

‘People are making irrational decisions’

In a briefing Thursday morning, officials presented several graphs and said shootings seem to occur during three different scenarios: while officers are trying to apprehend a violent criminal; while someone is suffering some kind of mental health episode and threatens an officer; and involvement with individuals “who sometimes have very little criminal record, but they’re under the influence of some kind of intoxicating drug or alcohol, and they make poor decisions.”

Medina said there are only two police shootings – that the department knows of – where the person was not under the influence of something. However, in 22 cases, it was unknown whether the individual was intoxicated because toxicology reports are done only on those who have died or because the cases are still under investigation.

The data APD pulled from the toxicology reports indicates that a person had drugs – including marijuana – in their system, not that they were necessarily intoxicated at the time of the shooting.

An investigator walks through the parking lot of the Albuquerque Police Department headquarters Thursday morning after officers shot and killed a man they said had lunged at them while holding a knife. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“It is key to understanding that people are making irrational decisions and our officers are having to deal with it because (the person was) under the influence …,” Medina said. “We know that there’s a grieving family left behind and so many times it’s hard for them to comprehend – why did our loved one do this? I just want them to remember that maybe their loved one wasn’t under the right frame of mind.”

Two recent fatal shootings – that of Keshawn Thomas at a gas station on Aug. 28 and Julian Sanchez on Nov. 5 – appear to fall into the last category. An attorney representing Thomas’ family has said that Thomas legally owned the gun and he has not seen any indication that the 27-year-old was truly a threat to officers when he was shot.

However, Medina pushed back on the idea that officers could undergo training in order to better deal with intoxicated people without using deadly force. “There is no training that says you can predict somebody’s behavior who is under the influence of alcohol,” he said.

Instead, he urged community members to understand that, if you have a gun in your car, you should tell the officer that and not try to hand it to them. And, he said, if you expect to be drinking, you should leave your gun at home.

Medina said he is committed to decreasing police shootings and violence, but APD cannot do it alone and cannot count on officers to de-escalate in every situation.

“How do we make sure that people get the help that they need?” he said. “Because this process of just releasing people back into the community … we’re not pointing fingers at anybody … it’s a difficult task understanding who is responsible for these individuals.”

Most shootings comply with policy

The majority – 83% – of shootings by APD officers were found to be in compliance with department policy. Three cases – 6% – were found to be out of policy and 11% are pending investigation.

Two officers were fired. Isaac Aragon was fired for shooting and injuring a man who was fleeing from officers during a traffic stop. Jerry Arnold was fired for shooting at, but missing, an unarmed man without having a clear view of what was unfolding.

Additionally, there were 15 cases of misconduct identified – not having a body camera on or not following the duty to provide medical attention and transportation. Those investigations resulted in letters of reprimand, verbal reprimand and additional training.

The independent monitor overseeing police reforms was sharply critical of the internal affairs ability to investigate use of force, including shootings, prior to July 2021. That’s when a new team of external investigators was hired to oversee and train APD investigators. The external team is reviewing previous cases now, said Zak Cottrell, deputy director of police reform. “As those backlog investigations get done, it’s possible we’ll see a couple more out-of-policy in those cases, as well,” he said.