ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Elisha Lucero, who had years of mental health problems after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, was killed by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputies after shooting her more than 20 times.
Lucero, 28, had become more and more restless on July 21, 2019, and her behavior became so worrying that her family called 911 in hopes she would be taken to the hospital.
“That was one of the biggest mistakes we made because Elisha is not here today,” said her sister Elaine Maestas. “The result of that call was that my little sister – who was only four feet tall in her shoes – was shot 21 times by the men who were called to help.”
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office settled a lawsuit with Lucero’s family last year. In a statement to KOB4, NBC’s Albuquerque subsidiary, Sheriff Manny Gonzales said, “BCSO’s commitment is to protect children and families. Our condolences go to the family for their loss. “
Now Albuquerque is changing the way it responds to emergency calls to the way she placed maestas for her sister. In addition to the police and paramedics, residents have access to a third part of public safety: behavioral medicine.
“We’re not law enforcement, so we’re not here to quote you,” said Mariela Ruiz-Angel, director of Albuquerque Community Safety, or ACS, an independent agency alongside police and fire departments that can be dispatched to 911 dispatchers. “We’re only here to check on you. How can we help?”
With one of the highest rates of fatal police encounters in the country, New Mexico has been under Justice Department oversight since 2014. A DOJ investigation found that Albuquerque police routinely use excessive and fatal force, including against people with mental illness.
The city has created ACS as an alternative solution. ACS recruits and trains members with a background in social work, counseling and peer support. Two-person behavioral health teams are deployed when non-violent and non-medical emergencies arise and are provided with training to assess situations such as mental crisis.
Units are also stocked with water, snacks, blankets, and hand warmers.
In New Mexico, the likelihood of hospitalization incarceration for people with mental illness is about 3 in 1. In order to change these numbers, the new department is tasked with addressing the fundamental problems that cause the city’s social ills, including mental illness, addiction and lack of housing.
“I definitely think ACS will help us reduce the number of people arrested with behavioral problems,” said Lt. Matt Dietzel of the Albuquerque Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Unit.
Isaiah Curtis, a behavioral health responder, said squatters who live in empty buildings are a particular challenge for the teams that require a combination of tactical and clinical training.
“We’re trained to stay out of the door, knock softly, and speak in a soft voice,” he said recently as he made his rounds of downtown Albuquerque. “We want to make sure the person is safe. After that, we start talking about their behavioral health problems. From there we want to see … what kind of services are best for you. “
Should behavioral health responders find themselves at risk, they are ready to call the police for assistance and enforcement, Ruiz-Angel said. But for the first six weeks of the program “no call went sideways”.
Albuquerque is one of several U.S. cities introducing alternatives to traditional police response, including Denver, San Francisco, and Eugene, Oregon. Unlike in the other cities, the initiative is not a pilot or temporary program, but an independent department.
“It wasn’t a program that we started within the fire department or the police,” said Ruiz-Angel. “I hope, you know, we work with cities across the country. Hopefully we as a nation can really cement this model of an alternative response. “
“In loving memory of Elisha Lucero,” read a sign on a memorial erected by her family on the side of the road in Albuquerque. The memorial contains a quote from the film “Lilo and Stitch” which says, “Ohana means family. … Family means that no one is left behind or forgotten. “
“If we could change the way these calls are handled, it can save others’,” Maestas said. “And it will.”