New Mexico has the second-highest fatal police shooting rate in US – is it ready to change?

Veronica Ajanel had not heard from her father for several days. Under normal circumstances she would have gone to visit him to check in, but this was late March 2020, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the New Mexico governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, had just implemented a shelter-in-place order for all of New Mexico.

Ajanel was worried about her fathers health, so she called the Albuquerque police department (APD) to perform a welfare check on the 52-year-old Valente Acosta-Bustillos. APD had performed these check ins on Valente before. His family was routinely calling in for support as the Mexican native had been experiencing manic episodes.

But shortly after placing the call Veronica learned that APD had shot her father, killing him, execution-style inside his own home. “They were supposed to help him,” Ajanel told the Guardian from her home. “My dad suffered from severe anxiety and paranoia from being undocumented in the United States, but they knew who he was and his mental illness was documented, and they still shot him.”

Veronica Ajanel.
Veronica Ajanel. Photograph: John Acosta

In Albuquerque, this story is not rare. Since 2015 the state has had the second-highest rate in the US, just behind Alaska, of fatal police shootings. Since 2015, police in the Albuquerque metro area have shot 44 people, 42 of whom have died from their injuries. Before that, from 2010 to 2015, police in Albuquerque shot 40 people and 27 died.

In 2014, after Albuquerque police shot James Boyd, civil unrest and widespread pressure seemed to spark promising reform. But these shootings continued to persist. Now, after last summer’s widespread civil protests following the death of George Floyd, the city might finally be ready for change. In February, the city of Albuquerque and the DOJ proposed to temporarily bring an outside team to assist with investigations of use-of-force incidents by officers with the Albuquerque Police Department.

But for residents dealing with the trauma of police violence, hope is still far away.

New Mexico is a land of harsh contrast. Once part of the kingdom of Spain, the state has been part of many deadly racial wars and affected by multiple waves of colonization. Now, it’s home to a multicultural community where Indigenous tribes, Spanish descendants, Mexican immigrants and others live side by side.

Some say this violent history of colonization and white supremacy is part of the reason why Albuquerque has six times the national rate for fatal police shootings than New York City, or double the rate of Chicago.

“There’s this saying in New Mexico that says ‘love the land, hate the people’,” said George Lujan, a community activist and executive director of The SouthWest Organizing Project (Swop), a 40-year-old community-based organization focused on youth. “We love seeing the beautiful skies, scenery, landscapes and all that, but our police departments are constantly hating their own people.”

Last year, when the US erupted in uprisings and demonstrations, Albuquerque’s protests turned quickly tense and violent.

Albuquerque police in riot gear begin to disperse after a stand-off with protestors on 29 May 2020.
Albuquerque police in riot gear begin to disperse after a stand-off with protestors on 29 May 2020. Photograph: Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMA/REX/Shutterstock

In June, police officers met with and encouraged a vigilante group armed and dressed in military garb, just shortly before a demonstration against police brutality. At one protest involving the removal of a Spanish conquistador statue, one of these militia members shot a protester. Police officers were heard on a dispatch calling members of the group “armed friendlies”. (The police department later backtracked – noting that this interaction was not sanctioned and that it should have never happened.)

The department denies that it’s above the national average. “I don’t think it’s fair that we lump all numbers into one,” said APD spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos. “If you look at APD’s numbers you will see that we level out to about average when it comes to comparing officer involved shootings to other cities in the nation.”

But many say this was only the latest example of increasing militarization in the police force.

The two local law enforcement agencies that patrol the city of Albuquerque are the Albuquerque police department and the Bernalillo county sheriff’s office (BSCO). However, in recent years Albuquerque has also been subject to heavy state and federal police presence in the form of police surges, said to combat high levels of homicide and crime.

Lujan Grisham sent 50 New Mexico state police officers out to Albuquerque in May 2019 in what was known as the “Metro Surge Operation”. This operation lasted two months. Shortly after, in December 2019, “Operation Relentless Pursuit” was launched by then attorney general William Barr, but ended months before it began because of the pandemic. In July 2020, the Donald Trump administration initiated Operation Legend, sending 35 federal agents to Albuquerque.

The Bernalillo county sheriff’s office has also made national news for their years-long opposition to wearing lapel cameras until the governor intervened last year. In 2017, the office paid $3.3m in settlements stemming from excessive force lawsuits and fatal police shootings.

One of those settlements was from the shooting of Martin Jim, 25, a passenger in a stolen truck who was shot and killed by BSCO deputy Joshua Mora, the son of then undersheriff Rudy Mora. Joshua Mora had only been on the job for 18 months. (The Guardian reached out to the Bernalillo county sheriff’s office for comment but received no response.)

“There is a systematic problem here in Albuquerque, where police officers, deputy sheriffs, people in law enforcement, are not held accountable,” said Sam Bregman, the attorney who represented Martin Jim’s family.

“Too many times this is still considered the wild west, and you know what, if someone is running away from a police officer it’s almost like the police officer is justified in shooting someone just for someone running away, and that is completely unacceptable.”

Here in Albuquerque, the trauma of the shootings on families continues long past the incidents themselves. Rafael Melendez, 26, says that he has developed severe anxiety attacks since the shooting death of his father, Acosta-Bustillos.

“Every time I see a patrol car around town, I freeze and start shaking,” says Melendez. “I just keep asking myself, where did he go wrong? Where did he go wrong? And I just can’t find those answers.”

A few months after Acosta-Bustillos was shot in his home, another man, Kenneth Reiss, 51, was also shot and killed. Reiss had called APD because he was experiencing a home invasion, according to the emergency call that he placed.

Devon Reiss holds a portrait of his father, Kenneth Reiss, outside of his apartment.
Devon Reiss holds a portrait of his father, Kenneth Reiss, outside of his apartment. Photograph: John Acosta

When the police arrived, they saw a man flee the scene and started to chase after him. Shortly after, officers found Reiss sitting on a curb with a gun. As they approached him the officers unloaded five shots into Reiss, ending his life, according to his lawyer. At the moment the officers were unaware that they had just shot and killed the man that had called them.

Reiss was a beloved pillar of the Albuquerque community – known by many as the quintessential campus bartender. His son, Devon Reiss, 21, said he was left dumbfounded at how his fathers death happened.

“My dad was calling because there was a dangerous person trying to invade his home,” Devon Reiss said. “But they very well might be the same person, the same person who was trying to harm him.”


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