Impelled By Tragedy, Police Reform Advocates Make Meaningful, If Uneven, Progress Across Region

May 3, 2021
Originally published on May 4, 2021 10:36 am

Elaine Maestas remembers her sister, Elisha Lucero, going out of her way to help people.

“Even if it was like the last of her money, the last 20 dollars, and she knew you needed gas to get to work, didn't matter if you were a friend, a family member or somebody that she just met, she would help you out,” Maestas said.

Lucero was a pillar for her family. She was a loving aunt to Maestas’s children and a caregiver for her father when he became ill. But after she got in a car accident, Maestas said, “we really noticed a drastic, drastic change – that she was starting to not really be herself.”

A CT scan following the accident revealed Lucero had a brain tumor. She underwent surgery and afterwards was in and out of the hospital receiving treatment. She began having panic attacks, seizures and acting erratically.

One night, Lucero broke down the door of her trailer near Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Maestas, unsure what to do, called the cops. A mobile crisis team – a mental health clinician and a law enforcement officer – responded. Lucero agreed to seek help, but she was scared of being medicated or hospitalized.

“It was a really difficult time for us as a family trying to help her – but help her understand that she needed that help, too,” Maestas said.

On another night, her cousin called the cops after Lucero hit her uncle in the head. A mental health clinician had clocked out by that time of night, so only sheriff’s deputies responded to the incident. Things ended much differently.

“I remember my uncle calling me and he said, ‘I need you to sit down,’” Maestas recalled through tears. “And I knew right when he said that, something was wrong with Elisha.”

It was July 22, 2019. Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies had shot Elisha Lucero 21 times.

A multi-agency investigation that included the sheriff’s office paints a picture of chaos. Lucero, standing 4 feet 11 inches, reportedly came out of her trailer carrying a kitchen knife.

Law enforcement said they feared for their lives. They claim they Tased Lucero but she kept approaching. So they fired. Most of the bullets entered Lucero's head, shoulder, chest and abdomen. She was 28.

“I even thought, ‘If she moves again, I am going to shoot her,’” Lt. Alfonso Rodriguez recalled to investigators.

Some details in the investigation conflict with the deputies’ accounts. Law enforcement called in to dispatch at 12:54 a.m. that shots were fired, according to the report. The Taser, though, was not deployed until 1:03 a.m., according to the Taser log included in the investigation.

That inconsistency raises “genuine concern” for Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City chief of police who is now with the Center for Policing Equity. He wonders if deputies “tried to make their story fit.”

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The discrepancy haunts Maestas. She says deputies escalated and mishandled the situation from the beginning when they repeatedly knocked on Lucero’s window, shined flashlights into her trailer and commanded Lucero to come out.

“My sister's death was completely preventable,” Maestas said. “And the sad thing is, that her life was taken by the men that were called to help her.”

‘You’ve Got to Call it Out’

People in the Mountain West are killed by police at a rate more than one and half times the national average with New Mexico at the top of the list. Roughly a quarter of police shootings across the nation involve someone who was suffering from a mental health crisis, according to a Washington Post database.

Maestas points to these statistics often in her advocacy. Since her sister's death she has become a vocal proponent for police reform and is now a police accountability strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

During a recent virtual hearing for a police reform bill at the New Mexico Legislature, Maestas testified through tears about the night of her sister’s death: “Why did this man shoot her in her face? She was bleeding from her chest and he couldn’t see a knife. Clearly, she was not a threat.”

Senate Bill 227 was meant to reduce use of force, and it drew sharp criticism from police and ultimately failed. Maestas says law enforcement's opposition reflects its resistance to change. She points to the fact that deputies were not wearing body cameras when they shot Lucero. Sheriff Manny Gonzales demurred on the issue even after Bernalillo County commissioners passed a resolution months after Lucero’s death recommending cameras.

It was not until the murder of George Floyd the following year that the state passed a directive requiring officers to wear them. That wasn't enough for New Mexico State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez. When she learned of Lucero’s death, “I vowed that we needed to do something about this,” she said.

Her bill would have required reporting use of force that resulted in serious harm or death, and it would have prevented police departments from investigating their own incidents – as they did in Lucero’s case. (New Mexico State Attorney General Hector Balderas took over the investigation months after Lucero’s family reached a $4 million settlement with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office last year. The investigation is ongoing.)

Sedillo Lopez’s bill was among many reforms this session that police unions strongly opposed.

“If these bills pass the way you guys have them, there will be no law enforcement left,” said Sgt. Jose Carrasco, union president for the New Mexico State Police Association, in a recorded statement he issued in February.

Carrasco did not respond to a request for comment.

But one landmark piece of legislation did pass: the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, signed into law by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in early April. It removed qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protected police and government officials from civil lawsuits. The bill passed without the support of Republicans or police.

New Mexico’s Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, who co-sponsored the bill, says efforts to work with police on reform have largely failed because they refuse to recognize the problem.

“You've got to call it out. You have to acknowledge the problem, but you also need to call out unfair criticism from law enforcement,” Egolf told the Mountain West News Bureau.

Egolf questions whether cops can negotiate reforms in good faith. He says police have rejected money for training after requesting it in lieu of legislative reform. He also points to a six-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that found the Albuquerque Police Department demonstrated a pattern of excessive force. In November 2020, DOJ said at least one of its recommendations to remedy problems with the department had “fallen on deaf ears.”

‘Citizens Are With Me’

New Mexico is not the only state in the region attempting to transform a reckoning on racism and police brutality into legislative action. In Nevada, Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris took a page from Colorado’s pioneering police reform playbook to write several measures. Harris, a member of Nevada’s Black Legislative Caucus, points to policing’s racist past to help explain its problematic present.

“Police units in the United States were born of slave patrols,” Harris said. “I like to say no more than 60 or so years ago, it was a police officer's job to pull me off of a lunch counter.”

After George Floyd’s murder, Nevada legislators heeded the calls of protesters in a state with the fourth highest rate of police killings in the nation. They passed a bill banning chokeholds that also required officers to intervene when another cop is using excessive force. This session, Harris is sponsoring two bills with measures on data collection, use of force, qualified immunity, protester protections, and banning the use of restraint chairs in jails, to name a few.

Historic racial justice demonstrations held across the state last year signal that “the citizens of Nevada are with me,” Harris said. And they understand “that it’s not police officers versus citizens. We’re all on this planet together.”

People are demanding change in small towns across the region and more conservative parts of the Mountain West, too.

After several historic demonstrations in Jackson, Wyo., community organizers testified before county commissioners for weeks last summer, leading to the creation of an independent task force to study policing. Some 350 miles away in Billings, Mont., the group Warrior Women for Justice has been holding rallies and pressing local leaders to take action on police reform. Billings has one of the highest rates of police killings among mid-sized cities. Organizer Lita Pepion, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe who lives in Billings, points out that Indigenous people in her community are disproportionately targeted.

“We just decided we can't just sit back and let that happen anymore," Pepion said. "It's not justice. There are books written about it – it's The New Jim Crow. Everybody knows it. So I don't know why we're still doing the same thing.”

Another member of the group is Tasheena Duran, sister of 29-year-old Coleman Stump, a citizen of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe shot and killed by police last October. His death helped bring the women together, Pepion said.

Duran “started reaching out to people who had experienced similar things to her. And we found out that we were all feeling the same way,” Pepion said. “It almost started out like a support group.”

Pepion says her son has been swept into the criminal justice system and she worries he too will one day die at the hands of police. The group is now taking classes to become effective legislative lobbyists at the state level after they did not get traction with local leaders and police, Pepion said.

Amid their organizing, some activists in the region have also been forced to confront white supremacists and other extremist hate groups that persist in pockets of the Mountain West.

Last year in Boise, Idaho, roughly 6,000 people attended a vigil for George Floyd. Weeks later members of the state’s entrenched extremist movements emerged on Boise’s streets brandishing Nazi imagery and chanting racist epithets at a Black Lives Matter demonstration about defunding the police. Some of the counter-protesters attacked people, including then-congressional candidate Libertarian Joe Evans.

While Mayor Laura McLean condemned the counter-protesters, the police union representing Boise Police Department officers said the mayhem was “not limited to counter-protesters.”

Black Lives Matter Boise’s Terry Wilson says he and fellow activists are hardly deterred. He said they will demand a seat at the table when Boise City Council holds its annual budget talks this summer with defunding the police a central goal.

“We will be at City Hall, whether Nazis are punching us in the back of the head, punching congressional candidates that support us in the head, or not,” Wilson said.

Wilson, a criminologist, points to the deep racial disparities at every level of the criminal justice system, from pre-arrest to post-conviction.

“Policymakers, decision-makers, stakeholders being unaware of this is another reason the Boise chapter was born – to bridge the legislature and the public to critical criminological research that's been suppressed and hidden for decades,” Wilson said.

When it comes to challenging the status quo and reshaping the criminal justice system, the role of activists like Wilson and Pepion cannot be overstated, said Howard Henderson, founder of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University.

“They've helped educate, they've helped empower communities and also created another generation of people who are focused on meaningful change,” he said.

The same could be said in Utah, where large uprisings transpired after Floyd’s killing and Black Lives Matter activists have been regularly involved in conversations about reform. Those demonstrations helped to prominently position police reform measures during the state’s recent legislative session. And at least one directive passed that policing experts say is a meaningful first step: data collection of excessive use of force. But the measures were not enough for Lex Scott, head of Black Lives Matter Utah.

“I am disappointed," she said. "I don't want to be a negative Nelly over here, but there are just two things that we wanted” – independent oversight boards for police and mandating the prompt release of body cam footage.

Now Scott says Black Lives Matter Utah will launch ballot initiatives – a daunting and lengthy process in Utah – to put the issues in front of Utah voters.

Burbank, the former Salt Lake City chief of police, agrees that current reforms lack the requisite muscle that will lead to transformative shifts in policing. He says the only way to fix policing is to dismantle the system as we know it.

He points out different forms of anti-bias and de-escalation training have already been in place throughout the nation and they have not changed outcomes. In other words, society has tried to make ending racism “a hearts and minds issue,” to no avail, Burbank said.

The solution, he says, is for police to forgo things like traffic stops or arresting people who face misdemeanor charges. Those are examples of activities that produce racially disparate outcomes. “If you no longer engage in that behavior, you no longer have the bias,” Burbank said.

He suggests police should radically shift their gaze away from other social problems as well — including mental health crises like Elisha Lucero’s.

“The criminal justice system has never solved the problem of drug or alcohol addiction or mental health or homelessness,” he said. But, Burbank points out, those problems still tend to command the bulk of police attention across the country.

This is the second of two stories on police reform efforts in the Mountain West.

The first story explored how Colorado likely led the way for the region — and nation — with a historic piece of legislation signed into law last year.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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