"Law Enforcement Lethal Force: People of Conscience, Community Deference to Police, and a Call to Action"

 Attorney Enrique Moreno. Photo taken by Fernanda León/El Diario de El Paso

Attorney Enrique Moreno. Photo taken by Fernanda León/El Diario de El Paso

Kathy Staudt, El Paso Social Justice Planning Committee 

On March 25, Attorney Enrique Moreno spoke to approximately forty people at the El Paso Social Justice Forum about the use of lethal force in local law enforcement.  He spoke in detail about two of three cases against the city for the death of young men with mental issues.  To begin the presentation, Moreno asked: 'Under what circumstances can government agents kill people?'  Such a question is a compelling one for El Pasoans. El Paso has a dense, militarized law enforcement from federal, state, and local-level agents who, admittedly, may find themselves in dangerous circumstances.  However, a key issue for Moreno is whether officers are properly trained to make life-and-death decisions, especially in cases involving possible mental illness.

As Attorney Moreno summarized, in most big-city police departments in Texas, trained officers in a Crisis Intervention Team respond to cases of probable mental illness.  El Paso is an exception to the rule.  Although statistics are hard to come by, approximately 25% of lethal force cases involve a mental health crisis nationwide; in El Paso, 70% of our lethal force cases involve a mental health crisis.  Those undergoing a mental health episode often do not comply with orders from police officers.  And for officers with limited or no training in mental health, non-compliance may be viewed as disrespect and justification for escalation.  Death can be the tragic result.

As a researcher and active community member, I know that the details of legal cases provide rich testimony and documentation, such as what Attorney Moreno provided. In the first case, Moreno spoke about a young Hispanic man who trespassed in a neighbor's home, but did not steal anything or threaten anyone.  He returned home, the police arrived, and within twenty minutes shot the young man dead four times in the back.  The police officer claimed the victim had charged at him with a machete, but no machete was found and the young man was shot in the back.  In the second case, Moreno spoke about a parent's frantic call to police for help when their young-adult son was threatening suicide.  Upon arrival, the son had a rope around his neck and his hands by his neck, presumably holding the noose away from his neck, and did not comply with the officer's order to show his hands.  The officer tased the victim (with an electroshock stun gun), and he died several minutes later.  

Who decides whether officers made proper decisions when they killed victims, and especially victims with mental issues who caused and threatened no harm to the community.  Police departments typically operate internal affairs departments to investigate complaints about officers.  Members of disciplinary review boards decide whether officers acted properly.  However, when police chiefs appoint board members, particularly in an organizational culture that tolerates lethal force or gives no priority to establishing a Crisis Intervention Team, members of the public should wonder whether a full and honest hearing has occurred.  Until recently, after the U.S. Department of Justice intervened, the Albuquerque Police Department had a notorious reputation for excessive use of lethal force.  At the 2016 Texas Tribune annual conference, I attended the "Mental Health Matters" panel with a bipartisan group of Texas state legislators who responded to my question about the expected increase over 15 hours of mandated training (see toward the end: http://www.chucopedia.org/2016/10/10/diversity-trumps-border-security-at-this-years-texas-tribune-festival/#more-268).  

After Attorney Moreno's fine presentation, he opened the floor to questions from the audience, many of whom could be called concerned people of conscience, along with the readers of this essay. Community people, after all, he said, are the ones who can promote real change.  A rich dialogue took place, with a summary below of questions (Q) and answers (A).

Q: What is the intersection of race/ethnicity and class?  

A: In these particular cases, it is Hispanic officers using lethal force on Hispanic victims.  Both proper training and the absence of a Crisis Intervention Team are the issues here.  [Later a question was also raised about the need to develop a better selection process for those seeking jobs in police departments.] 

Q: El Paso is continuously touted as a 'safe community.' Might that influence the quiescence of the community that tolerates the lethal force and a chief that made disparaging comments about Dallas community members' activists as 'terrorists?'   

A: El Pasoans seem to be a deferential group on the whole, with respect for the police no matter their behavior.  El Paso has a long history of deference to militarized law enforcement at multiple levels, from local to federal levels.  [And a question later noted the absence of media attention and follow up to lethal force cases.  Univision (KINT TV Channel 26) was the only news organization present. 

Q: About ten-to-fifteen years back, El Paso moved toward a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model, although limited to MHMR (later renamed Emergence Health Network) clients in a community with a woefully lacking number of mental health providers.  

A: The effort fizzled out, although at the county level, the sheriff has instituted a Crisis Intervention Team model and is responsive to the community.  Neither responsiveness nor the CIT model is a priority in the city.  Research on cities which instituted CIT models show positive outcomes; for example, in Houston, the CIT reduced SWAT responses by 66%.

Q: What is the chain of command for the police department and chief? 

A: He/they answer to the City Council and Mayor.  Action would need to occur among those elected officials, most of whom were notably unwilling to do anything about the chief's remarks about Dallas (see second Q&A above).  Moreover, City Council may be reluctant to act for fears of negative effects on litigation and damages to be paid.

Q: We should examine next year's City Budget for line items requested by the police department to see whether the chief has requested a CIT or better mental health training.  Might the organizational culture change with community calls for action on a Crisis Intervention Team and better training for mental health episodes and for de-escalation techniques rather than lethal force?  

A: In several responses, forum participants suggested that questions could be raised to candidates in upcoming forums for City Council seats (2018 is the transition year for local elections to be aligned with the November elections rather than in spring).  

The EP Social Justice Committee issued a call to action for those interested in (1) communicating with their representatives, (2) commenting on the city budget (https://www.elpasotexas.gov/~/media/files/coep/office%20of%20management%20and%20budget/fy18%20budget/fy18%20preliminary%20book%20digital%20copy.ashx?la=en; comments  due early May: https://www.elpasotexas.gov/omb/chime-in ), (3) meeting with representatives, and (4) possibly appearing before City Council if and when an ordinance is introduced for a Crisis Intervention Team and/or an Independent Citizens' Review Board in police operations to reduce tragedies such as those covered in the session.  Contact info@epsocialjustice.org .  

All in all, Attorney Moreno's presentation at the EP Social Justice Forum facilitated a productive and informative session among people of conscience to provide police with the proper training and tools for fewer or no lethal force.

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Please attend the next EP Social Justice Forum on April 29th, 2:30-4, with the distinguished Professor, Dr. Tony Payan, Director of Rice University's Mexico Center, speaking on the topic:  "Mexico's Upcoming Presidential Election (July 1): What might results mean for the U.S. and U.S.-Mexico Relations?"

 

Kathy Staudt, PhD, is a retired Professor of Political Science.  In her second-to-last book, she and Dr. Zulma Méndez co-wrote an analysis of the non-deferential social change movements in our neighboring city:  Courage, Resistance, and Women in Ciudad Juárez: Challenges to Militarization (Austin: University of Texas Press 2015).  Kathy will always remember the scenes and the noises in her ten-hour police Drive Along years ago, part of victims' assistance training, when a mentally ill man's sister called the police to settle him down in a store.  He became agitated, so was charged (much to the sister's dismay) and locked up at downtown headquarters without his medication, growing increasingly agitated and knocking his head on the wall while the officer wrote up the charge at the end of his long shift.  

 Professor Kathy Staudt

Professor Kathy Staudt