When the Department of Justice report on the Albuquerque Police Department came out last year, it highlighted that interactions between officers and people with mental illnesses can be volatile. It also pointed to limited services. But what about the mental wellbeing of the officers?
On March 19, 2012, the call that came in to Albuquerque police was not an emergency.
"Yeah, I want to report a suspicious person," the caller said. "I was walking out to go to school. There’s a guy sitting in a black Mitsubishi Montero. And he asked me if I knew anybody that wanted to buy a car system."
Officer Martin Smith responded and within moments, shot and killed the man in the Mitsubishi SUV.
Here’s how Smith first told the story: He pulled-up behind the black SUV, got out, approached the vehicle alone and began issuing orders for the driver to stick his hands out the window. Thirty-one-year-old Daniel Tillison backed up, hitting the police car. Smith shot a rear tire. Then he spotted a black object in one of Tillison’s hands, and shot him through the window. "Adam 335 PD! Shots fired. Subject tried running me over," Smith yelled to dispatch.
The object turned out to be a cell phone. He explained what happened next during an interview with detectives after the incident.
"At that point, he didn’t appear like he was breathing or anything. He was just [breath sounds]," he said. "So I opened the door, pulled him out of the vehicle, laid him down on the ground. Ran to the back of my car, because I got combat field dressings."
Officer Smith is a veteran of the military who served in Afghanistan. The other people in the room check in with him, saying: "You OK? Good job. It's over. Take a deep breath."
But the sticking point for Tillison’s family is how Smith described the look Tillison gave him:
"He was looking at me the whole time. And he was like, I don’t want to say, like, the warrior stare. Or I’m-going-to-hurt-you type stare."
Mary Jobe is the mother of Tillison's three children. "What officer is going to tell another officer that somebody gave them the warrior stare unless they were in PTSD mode?" she asked. "What is a warrior stare? How can you feel threatened by the way somebody looks at you?"
Jobe was with Tillison for 10 years. In that time, she said he had a heroin addiction and went into methadone treatment. But she maintained he never brought his problems home with him. And when he was straight, she remembered, he was a caring and energetic dad.
"Daniel sadly lost his life because of the officer and the mental status he had at the moment he had shot and killed Daniel," she said. "So, my kids are now without a father because of the city’s irresponsibility and negligence in hiring this officer."
That’s the thrust of a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Jobe and her kids.
Frances Carpenter is Jobe’s lawyer. "I think officers do have a really hard job out there," she said. "No one can disagree with that."
Carpenter alleges that Smith was diagnosed with PTSD by the VA Hospital, and that APD knew about it. Proof of that diagnosis hasn’t been presented yet, and a judge will rule on that issue and others in the coming months.
According to state regulation, police are required to undergo a mental health evaluation when they’re hired. But some officers take a leave of absence to serve in the military.
"When they come back, are they subject to a second mental health examination? No they’re not. Why aren’t they?" Carpenter asked.
APD explained in an email that those kinds of evaluations could be considered discriminatory under federal law. APD policy does require mental health check-ins and critical incident debriefings after traumatic events on the job.
Still, Carpenter said the department isn’t adequately screening officers or providing enough psychological care. "I think a lot of times these officers are themselves victims," she said. "They’re victims of their employers. They’re victims of a system that doesn’t allow them to be people just like us."
Lt. Glenn St. Onge with APD’s crisis intervention team said police are encouraged to report the misconduct of their colleagues. He appeared on the KUNM Call In Show in November.
"If it’s, you know, an issue of they’re worried about the officer, the officer is having a tough time maybe it’s something at home—there’s nothing punitive for an officer to make a referral," he said.
But, St. Onge adds, that process isn’t always anonymous.