Substance abuse treatment is not available for everyone who needs it in New Mexico, and this shortage is at the root of some tragic altercations with police.
Mike Gomez met me in a park in Albuquerque, holding a framed photo of his son Alan. “He was a good kid, a normal kid,” he said. “He graduated high school on time. He was a Little League All-Star.”
Mike has been speaking out about the Albuquerque Police Department since his son was killed by APD in 2011. But there hasn’t been a lot of coverage of what his son was like, he told me. “Around mid school he started having some emotional problems,” Mike said. “I wish I would have known it then. I guess he started drinking when he was about in the eighth grade or seventh grade. He was still a happy kid. He rode skateboards and stuff. He was fearless. Alan was fearless.”
By age 22, Alan was already a union sheet metal worker like his dad, and he owned his own home. But, Mike said, his son was struggling with a heroin addiction. “I was leaving town. I told him to go to his brother’s house so he wouldn’t be alone,” he said. “And he did. I was proud of him. He was trying to get better, get straight again.”
Mike said Alan tried some new drugs the night he was killed. A toxicology report found heroin and meth in his system, according to the District Attorney’s Office. “His brother seen the whole thing,” Gomez said. “And his brother right to this day is still mentally just devastated. It’s just eating on his soul. When one person’s gone in the family, it not only leaves a hole in the whole heart of the family, but it devastates the mind of the families, the way they act, their whole being you know?”
Alan’s brother’s girlfriend called 911 that night. She told the dispatcher that Alan was acting crazy, was going in and out of the house, that he had a gun and wouldn’t let them move.
“Albuquerque Police Department, come out now!” an officer shouted. “We can’t go away sir. You need to come out now!” In the police lapel camera footage, the gunshot is abrupt. Officers rushed into the house. Alan was shot in the torso and lay bleeding on the floor. You can hear the anguished cries of his brother in the background. “Where’s the gun? Did anybody find the gun? Ask them where the gun was!” an officer called.
Police didn’t find a gun on or near Alan but rather in the hall closet.
In an interview with detectives, the shooter, Officer Sean Wallace, explained that he’d been on his way home after a shift when he heard about the situation on a police scanner. He turned his car around and headed to the scene. Wallace described seeing Alan’s silhouette in the doorway of the house: “My mindset is that if he attempts to leave that doorway, I won’t be able to react fast enough, we won’t be able to get our hostage rescue plan in place fast enough, before he kills the two people inside.”
It was Wallace’s third shooting on the job—two of them were fatal. And all of the people he shot were unarmed.
APD later came under criticism for not screening Wallace appropriately before he was hired. A DOJ report that found Albuquerque officers had a pattern of unconstitutional use of force mentions this case specifically: “When the officer shot Gomez, the circumstances would not have suggested to a reasonable officer that there was an immediate threat … .” The report also said statements by police describing the night Alan was shot were inconsistent. Gomez’ family sued APD, and the case was settled for$900,000.
Peter Bochert is the coordinator of the state’s Drug Court. It’s a criminal justice track that requires addicts to get into heavily monitored treatment. “National data tells us that about 50 percent of those in jails and prison are clinically addicted,” he said.
But, Bochert added, you have to have a fully functioning behavioral health system for Drug Court to really work. “There are tremendous needs and gaps statewide that our behavioral health system is just unable to address. We have a lack of nurses and substance abuse care in many of our communities.”
Mike Gomez agreed. “There’s nowhere to hardly go in Albuquerque. Alan was 17 when he really started to do the heroin. He was losing weight. I thought he was going to die. He had this little warrant out for his arrest, for failure to appear for some traffic thing.”
Mike hand-delivered his son’s arrest warrant to police to make sure Alan would get picked up. Because when Alan was in jail, he could get help with detoxing.
Bochert said it’s hard to know what could have prevented any one shooting case. “If they’re getting the appropriate services, I think we are forestalling some of the horrific things we’ve seen with these APD shootings,” he said. “By the time they end up out on the street shouting at each other and guns getting drawn, we’ve missed opportunities further up stream.”
Police shootings, Bochert said, are often the tragic conclusion to a series of failures.
This story is the second in a series about APD shooting deaths and public health. It’s part of KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project, which is funded by the McCune Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.