According to the woman’s grandson, family members called 911 to report that she was undergoing a mental health crisis, and they needed help. Instead of professional assistance, their call for help resulted in her death.
“When they finally pushed my cousin and my aunt away, the officer shot two shots at my grandma,” he told the Sun-News.
Las Cruces Police have the bodycam video from the officers, but are refusing to release it. Instead, they have released a professionally produced video that provides the same kind of information that is usually given at a press conference, but without the need to answer any questions.
The video includes the panicky phone call to 911 from the woman’s daughter. It also includes a snippet from the bodycam showing the officers walking up to the home. But it switches from bodycam video to still photos in the critical moments just before Vaca was shot. Why did they do that?
The still photos tell us nothing about the exchange between the officers and Vaca. What did they say? How much time elapsed? How close was Vaca to them when she was shot? Was she lunging at them? Were they trapped?
We’re not told who the officer is, but are assured that he’s a nine-year veteran with 70 hours of crisis intervention training. According to the grandson, the officer immediately began yelling at the woman to, “Put the f***ing knife down!” then shot her when she didn’t.
Is that what they teach, shouting profanity at an elderly woman suffering from dementia as a way to de-escalate the situation?
This is simply a PR video, and should be dismissed as such. But it may be all we get.
Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of past experience, so we know how these things work. The task force made up of local law enforcement officers will file a report exonerating their colleague. The district attorney will then cherry pick parts of the report that support that decision for public release, but keep the rest of it secret.
The family then sues the city. If the city goes to court to defend itself, the public finally gets to learn what really happened. If the city settles, it all remains a secret.
Nobody should be re-assured by the pronouncements that are to come.
It is because of those past incidents that the city and county have been working so hard to prevent this from happening again. The county has invested in a crisis triage center to improve mental health care, but it is not coordinated with local law enforcement.
The city is in the process of establishing crisis response teams, which probably give us the best hope in the long term. The fewer interactions police have with the mentally ill, the better off both of them will be.
Reform can’t stop there. Accountability and transparency must be part of the process as well. The PR video released by the police department gives the public the impression that the scales are already weighted before the investigation has even started.
Las Cruces is fortunate to have a respectful relationship between the police and community. But that trust should not be abused. As long as police refuse to release the full bodycam video, the public will have a right to ask what they’re trying to hide.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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