Think all the killings by cops making news these days are exclusive to urban areas? Think again. Here in New Mexico, we’ve had at least five so far this year, and unless I’m missing something, not one in Albuquerque this year.
For context, let’s look at some national stats: So far this year, there have been at least 68 killings by law enforcement officers across the United States, according to a list on Wikipedia. That’s obviously an incomplete tally, since none of this year’s New Mexico killings are included, but it still gives us some perspective on the frequency of such incidents across the USA.
Now before anyone takes to the streets in outrage over this year’s police-involved shootings in New Mexico, let’s take a look at three of them in particular:
• In the early morning hours of June 27, Travis Vierra, 26, allegedly stole a pickup in Belen and took off, only to get stuck in a ravine on Laguna Pueblo land. When approached by pueblo officers, he reportedly opened fire with a handgun and was eventually shot by a state police trooper who had been called in to assist.
• Four days earlier, on the afternoon of June 23, Josh Herrera, 29, welded a .22-caliber handgun as he caused a disturbance at a residence in Hanover. Grant County deputies arrived, followed by state police, and they tried to convince him to drop his gun. Instead, according to a state police news release, he “took a deliberately aggressive posture and pointed his handgun at officers,” who then killed him with a single shot.
• During the early morning hours of Easter (March 27), a shotgun-tooting Robert D. Guerin, 33, was killed just outside his home by a Roswell police officer after a standoff that lasted a little more than 20 minutes. Police said Guerin pointed the gun at officers—although, in viewing police video of the incident, it was unclear whether he was pointing it directly at officers or had laid it on the hood of his pickup so he could take a leak. An officer got a bead on Guerin, fired one shot into his chest and ended his life.
(The other two killings by officers I’m aware of were an armed carjacking suspect who was killed along Interstate 25 near Socorro and a cop who shot his girlfriend in Silver City. There could be others I’m not aware of.)
Ongoing investigations into the Laguna and Hanover killings will likely conclude that the officers clearly acted in self-defense, but in the Roswell shooting it’s not so clear-cut—and is exacerbated by a previous police action that didn’t result in a death.
About four months earlier, a distraught off-duty officer who had shot a gun off in her residence, then came outside and wave it around in front of officers, was shot with a beanbag gun. Fortunately, she lived, but the two incidents raise questions about why officials chose use lethal force against Guerin when the off-duty officer, 24-year-old Valerie Palombi, was brought down with a beanbag.
Still, I suppose you can’t blame cops for using deadly force when a suspect’s got a gun and threatening to use it. A separate Wikipedia list has 58 police officers who have been killed in the line of duty so far this year. Cops put their lives on the line all the time, as last week’s killing of five officers in Dallas clearly shows.
Of course, there are many different reasons for all these fatal confrontations, though there are some common threads running through most of them. Firearms and the availability of guns are a huge factor; grab a gun and start waving it around and the cops are likely to take you down in a hurry. And the color of your skin also factors into the mix; white folks simply aren’t being shot by police with nearly as much frequency, while men of color are far more likely to have lethal force used against them when they get crossways with a cop.
Then there are other factors: levels of resistance to arrest, “suicide by cop” mindsets, criminal histories, alcohol and drugs, even the disposition of the officers themselves—the reasons are just too many to name in this space.
One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to these killings. There are good cops and bad cops, innocent victims and violent perpetrators, and a whole lot of people falling somewhere in between.
Perhaps the greatest outrage of last week’s fatal shootings—of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the five officers in Dallas—is that none of them deserved what they got. They’re simply the latest victims to the violence that permeates the streets and back roads of our nation and state. And until the citizenry, and the police, start looking at and addressing the root causes of this killings, there will be plenty more to come.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.