ALBUQUERQUE – The sheriff in New Mexico’s most populous county has been chosen by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to lead a mental health working group that is part of a federal effort to explore issues affecting the ability of law enforcement to reduce crime.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales told the Albuquerque Journal on Thursday that as chairman of the panel, he will work with criminal justice experts on a report about how law enforcement should work with people experiencing mental health problems.
Gonzales said his deputies are addressing the issue locally with mobile crisis teams and crisis intervention training.
While advocates for the mentally ill say they have seen progress in how Albuquerque Police Department officers address this population, they have yet to see the same changes from the sheriff’s office.
Shannon Kennedy, an attorney suing the sheriff’s office on behalf of the family of a mentally ill woman who was shot and killed by deputies last year, called it ironic that Gonzales was appointed to the working group.
“He now has a position where he is serving not only a local community but, in a sense, the nation,” Kennedy said. “It’s stunning that of all the people ... they’ve selected a man who knowingly refused to adopt policies that could have saved the life of a woman whose family was reaching out for help.”
The lawsuit filed by Elisha Lucero’s family alleges her July 2019 death was caused partly by the sheriff office’s failure to authorize a SWAT team or mobile crisis team to respond after Lucero’s uncle and cousin reported she was acting strangely and experiencing psychosis.
An autopsy report found that Lucero, who was nearly naked and armed with a knife, was shot at least 21 times.
Gonzales said he could not discuss the shooting because of the pending litigation.
The sheriff, a Democrat, said he believes he was chosen to lead the working group because of previous operations his office has handled with federal agents, including one dubbed “Operation Triple Beam,” which saturated areas of the city with law enforcement.
President Donald Trump created the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice through an executive order last fall.
The commission is made up of police chiefs, state prosecutors, county sheriffs, rural and tribal authorities and federal agents and includes 15 working groups, including the panel on mental illness. The commission is expected to meet monthly over the next year.