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Six Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies mistook a black flashlight a man appeared to be pointing at civilians for a handgun when they fired at him more than a dozen times, killing him, last month.
At a news conference Monday morning, Chief Deputy Nicholas Huffmyer showed video of Colby Atkins standing outside of a car following a pursuit. Atkins, 45, appeared to be reaching for something and then stretched out his arms at a passing van, causing the van to back up.
“He comes up with both hands in a very clear shooting platform,” Huffmyer said. “I mean, if there’s anyone that would recognize what a shooting platform is, it’s law enforcement … So I’m not surprised in the slightest that they recognized that and saw that as a threat.”
Atkins died at the scene. His family could not immediately be reached on Monday, but an obituary says he was born in Oklahoma and is survived by his three daughters, father and siblings.
The deputies who fired were: Sgt. Luke Edwards, who has been with BCSO for 14 years and had been involved in one other shooting; Deputy Derek Gallegos, who was hired four years ago and had been involved in one other shooting; Deputy Jose Corona, who was hired four years ago; Deputy Dominic Szabo, who was hired three years ago; Deputy Richard Boyle, who was hired two years ago, and Deputy Deanna Aragon who was hired one year ago.
All are back at work. The Multi-Agency Task Force and an internal investigation into the incident is still underway.
The shooting is the third by BCSO deputies this year, all of which were fatal.
The Sept. 20 incident began when deputies were called to a gas station on Rio Bravo and Second SW because a man was “intoxicated or passed out behind the wheel of a vehicle” next to a pump, Huffmyer said.
He said four deputies arrived and tried to “preemptively immobilize” the car but Atkins fled, hitting two of the cruisers on his way out of the gas station.
“More and more we’re seeing that when these individuals wake up from being passed out and the first thing that they encounter is a law enforcement presence, that there seems to be this inclination to flee immediately,” Huffmyer said. “Depending on what their particular state of mind is, that can often be a violent interaction and it’s certainly very unsafe for the general motoring public that’s just in and around the area.”
He said the deputies pursued Atkins as he drove into traffic – “highly erratic driving behavior, total disregard for the general motoring public.” Video of the pursuit shows Atkins run a red light and strike two civilian cars before his car is disabled about two miles from the gas station.
BCSO operating procedures say that deputies can only pursue a vehicle if they have reason to believe a suspect poses an immediate threat or is committing a violent felony. They are told not to initiate a pursuit when the danger created by the pursuit is greater than the danger of allowing the suspect to remain at large.
In response to questions about the policies, a BCSO spokeswoman said “any details surrounding the pursuit and the actions of our deputies is part of the ongoing investigation and will be made available upon the conclusion.”
When Atkins came to a stop the deputies shot a bean bag at his vehicle windows – which were heavily tinted – and ordered him to put his hands up to no avail. Video shows Atkins appeared to point a gun – what later turned out to be a flashlight – at a nearby van. As he looked back at the deputies, one yelled out “he’s got a gun” and all six shot at him.
“Six deputies who all fired, all simultaneously, all seeing the same thing, all processing the information in the same way and all firing at the same time,” Huffmyer said. “So that tells me there’s some uniformity there with what they were seeing and the input that their brain is processing. They all simultaneously perceived that as a lethal threat to those civilians that were behind him there.”
Atkins had pleaded guilty to an armed bank robbery in May 2005 and was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison. In 2017 he was released on supervised release for three years, according to court records. Over the past year and half he had been arrested at least three times for drug, stolen vehicle and burglary charges. At the time of his death, Atkins had warrants issued for his arrest in two of those cases for failing to appear in court.
Huffmyer said the car Atkins was driving had been reported stolen and a Marine Corps veteran license plate and sticker had been added to it. He said deputies found fentanyl and heroin in it along with “the things that we often see with identity theft and white collar crime: a whole variety of credit cards, pieces of identification.”
The toxicology report had not yet been completed, Huffmyer said, but it’s a “reasonable conclusion” to come to that Atkins had been under the influence of a substance.
Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said his office has noticed an increase in calls regarding people who are passed out. He pointed to an increase in fentanyl use over recent years and said that it’s become a safety issue for the public and deputies.
He referenced a recent large bust – by the FBI and local agencies, including BCSO – which resulted in more than a million fentanyl pills being seized.
“We’ll continue to do proactive operations throughout – whether it be Bernalillo County or the city of Albuquerque – to keep people safe,” Gonzales said. “But I can’t overemphasize the importance of the public to be aware of what they’re seeing out there … be aware of some of the signs of when these people are overdosed, or they’re sitting there in a delusional state.”