A lot of people in Las Cruces have questions about the officer-involved shooting death of Amelia Baca, a 75-year old grandmother with dementia. According to the Baca family, they called 911 after their grandmother began threatening family members with a knife. An LCPD officer arrived and they told the officer that their grandmother had dementia, was threatening family members with a knife, and the officer immediately began attempting to evacuate people from the house for their own safety. Within those moments Amelia Baca came at the officer with a knife and she was shot. At least one family member has said she was not holding a knife but the accuracy of that statement remains to be verified.
I don't know the officer involved in this incident. I don't know the name or even if the officer was male or female. This is not an indictment of the individual, whoever he or she may be. Cops respond to any incident in the manner in which they are trained. Sometimes they make bad decisions. Whether this outcome was justified based on training and LCPD protocol is a matter for the chief of police to decide following thorough criminal and internal investigations. Nonetheless, questions abound over the necessity of shooting a 75-year old grandmother with dementia.
A question at the forefront is why a crisis intervention team was not called. My understanding of the city's vision of a crisis intervention team (Project Light) is a unit composed of a licensed mental health provider, an EMT firefighter, and a social worker or counselor. Obviously the only one on duty is the firefighter and the others would have to be called out. How long would it take to arrive on-scene and initiate crisis intervention is anyone's guess, but I don't believe the unit is today operational. City council did approve $592,000 in funding for the unit in January.
But outside of that, here is the reality: those teams are unarmed and will not be put in a position of danger. A person armed with a knife qualifies under that scenario and until the person is disarmed no intervention team is going to be put in a position of vulnerability. The other issue is how much good a crisis intervention team can do with a person suffering from dementia and I suppose it depends at what level the dementia has progressed.
Back to the Baca shooting. A question being frequently asked is why the officer did not use a Taser. If the answer is the 50% failure rate of Tasers, then why do the officers even carry them? And if Tasers are unreliable, why wasn't a baton used? Or pepper spray? The cop knew going in that Ms. Baca had dementia and was armed, why would deadly force be the first choice? But because no one yet knows exactly what happened in those seconds between entry and gunshot, the lapel camera footage plays a critical part in determining whether what occurred was in conformance with policy or not.
What is known is that the officer had time to draw a firearm and yell twice at Ms. Baca to drop the (expletive) knife. Is that enough time for the officer to backpedal, retreat to another room, or to explore options other than shooting? If the answer is that priority one is always officer safety and priority two is always the safety of those in close proximity, then that would make options such as the Taser, baton or pepper spray even more significant. It could even be argued that not going in the house at all was a viable option. Remember, Ms. Baca had that knife in her hand in close proximity to family members before the officer ever got there.
I have to believe that your average officer has the strength and agility to outmaneuver an elderly woman. I would much rather swing a baton and break a wrist or bones in the hand or an arm as opposed to shooting someone's grandma. I'm not saying that is what should have occurred, but I would have difficulty shooting an elderly woman who was armed with any weapon outside of a firearm, especially having the knowledge that she is suffering from dementia. In defensive tactics officers are taught that a suspect holding a knife 21 feet away can cover that distance and stab the officer before he or she can ever draw their weapon and shoot. That is true for your average everyday bad guy, but I don't think it applies to 75 year old grandmothers.
Years ago I was present at a scene involving a black man armed with several knives in each hand. He was in an apartment on Idaho Avenue west of Telshor. He was upset because his girlfriend had broken up with him due to domestic violence. I'd dealt with him before and it was obvious he had mental issues and a propensity for violence (LCPD officers had fought him in the past to get him into custody on one of those arrests. He was so physically prominent that it required two pairs of handcuffs linked together to get him into custody). He was also physically strong. During this particular incident he held at least five knives in the palms of both hands and between his fingers. He was determined to leave the apartment and go to his girlfriend's place up the street. There was no way, of course, that we were going to let him out.
My position at that time was deputy chief of operations and one aspect of those duties was command of SWAT and the Hostage Negotiations Team (HNT). Officers had called for HNT and when the team arrived a negotiator placed himself at the doorway to the room with several patrol officers behind him. The suspect was about ten feet away, between a bed and a window. During the course of negotiations he would become upset and make a move like he was going to try and exit the room by moving around the bed towards the bedroom door, but the negotiator did a good job of bringing him back to a level of calm so that they could continue dialog. This went on for hours and the suspect eventually agreed to disarm himself and go to the hospital for psychological evaluation.
Obviously, there is a difference between someone with mental issues who possesses the capability to form some level of rational thought versus a person with dementia, who may be completely incapable. But my point is that when time is on the side of the officer, take advantage of that. There is no demand for an immediate resolution to the issue at hand. There is nothing wrong with backing off in an attempt to de-escalate but even if the event spirals out of control and use of force becomes necessary, there's nothing wrong with utilizing less-lethal options when armed with the knowledge that the person has dementia.
To those calling for an investigation of the LCPD because of past shootings I say shut your pie holes and wait for the criminal/internal investigations on the Baca case to be completed. It's going to take a while. The chief of police will take those findings and his recommendations to the city manager and a decision will be made regarding the future of the officer. It was a tragic and unfortunate situation but let the evidence, and not emotion, determine direction.