Homelessness, Police Violence And Living Your Life In Public

A screen shot of James Boyd from Officer Patrick Hernandez' lapel camera on March 16, 2014.

A screen shot of James Boyd from Officer Patrick Hernandez’ lapel camera on March 16, 2014.

  • Marisa Demarco
  • Friday, October 14, 2016

During the murder trial of two former Albuquerque police officers who shot and killed a man with mental illness, video and audio of James Boyd ranting and threatening police officers was played by the defense. The neighbor who called the police on him took the stand to say that he was afraid of the man, who was homeless and camping nearby in the Sandia Foothills. Boyd might not have had a lot of other options.

Marchers walked through Civic Plaza in downtown Albuquerque shouting “We are all James Boyd! We are all James Boyd!” It was Wednesday, Oct. 12, the night after the jury announced it was deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial for the former Albuquerque Police Department officers.

Lisa Huval is the associate director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “I’ve been really touched by the outpouring of support for James Boyd, just recognizing that he was a part of our community, and we don’t want to see anybody in our community die like that,” she said.

Huval said when you don’t have a home, your whole life becomes public, and that often means you’ll have more interactions with police.

“The things that you and I get to do in our homes, like sleep and eat and use the bathroom, and just rest, people experiencing homelessness have to do in public many times,” Huval said.

The first officers who went to the scene to talk to Boyd testified during the trial that they regularly interact with people camping illegally in the wild areas in and around the city because they are homeless. Huval said the police have a tough job when they get these kinds of complaints. “The police come out,” she said, “and they themselves also have limited options about how they can help that person.”

Lots of officers are well-trained to help people who are homeless, Huval added, and many officers are versed in all of the options out there. The problem, she said, is that shelters fill up, and plenty of people still don’t have anywhere to go. Plus if you’re a person with mental illness, she said crowded shelters might not feel safe.

“The tragedy of all this is that we do know what it takes to end homelessness,” Huval said. “People need safe housing that they can afford, and supports and services to keep that housing. And we also know based on our own experience locally that when we provide that, it works.”

George Mercer said the same is true for people with mental illness. He is the clinical director at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless. “In our society we have the capacity to assure that probably 99 percent of persons with mental illness have the opportunity to reach their potential and to live a good quality of life,” he said.

He was on-call to take walk-ins or help people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. Most people with mental illness are not dangerous, Mercer said, and research supports that. But because of the lack of resources and support, they often don’t have a lot of options—it’s sleep in the Foothills or under the freeway overpasses, “or walk around all night because they’re afraid to sleep, because they think they’re going to get robbed or they’re going to get assaulted,” he said. “And that’s truly the life that many of those mentally ill persons lives.”

Mercer said mental illness is a no-fault, chronic disease, just like diabetes or cancer, but that we have stigmatized it. “There’s really no justice for persons with chronic mental illness in our society,” he said.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, watched the trial proceedings closely. “I cannot get over the fact that at the end of the day, Mr. Boyd was shot and killed for the simple petty crime of illegally camping in the Foothills outside of Albuquerque,” he said. “The system simply shouldn’t work that way.”

Defense attorneys zeroed in on the moment Boyd was shot, and argued that he was killed because he brandished knives and presented a deadly threat to an officer near him. The prosecution pulled the lens back and looked at the bigger issues of how we want our city to be policed, and how we treat people who are homeless or who have a mental illness.

“I think the symbolic value of this trial is immense,” Simonson said.

It’s the first time anyone can remember officers facing murder charges for an on-the-job shooting in Albuquerque, and Simonson said he hopes the trial marks the beginning of a trend where cases of officers misusing their authority are looked at more objectively.

“It finally signals to the police community, as well as to the community at large, that officers can in fact be held accountable,” he said, “not just by their own supervisors but by the larger criminal justice system.”

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, Simonson said, in making sure that police departments aren’t investigating their own officers, and that their close colleagues aren’t responsible for bringing them to trial.

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