An Army of One
Veteran’s sister challenges law enforcement’s PTSD policies
Jonelle Ellis hasn’t done much public speaking. She's never been involved in politics. But for the last six months or so, she's helped create a bill and convinced legislators in Santa Fe to carry it.
Ellis' brother, a 25-year-old Iraq War veteran, was shot and killed a year ago on Jan. 13, 2010, by Albuquerque police. Kenneth Ellis III stepped out of his car with a gun to his head in front of the 7-Eleven at Constitution and Eubank.
She'd talked to her baby brother just a few days earlier. He wanted to go to the movies. "He was telling me about his son and his life," she says. "He was very positive. It's hard to listen to them say 'suicide by cop.' ”
Jonelle, a Veterans Affairs nurse, says her brother suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and couldn't sleep because of hideous nightmares. "He was active in trying to survive mentally what he had gone through in Iraq." He was doing all the right things to get better, she adds.
The Kenneth Ellis III Act seeks to beef up crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers and emphasizes how they handle people with mental impairments. The training would be mandatory statewide for 911 personnel and police—cadets and longtime officers alike. 2010 saw a spike in the number of officer-involved shootings in Albuquerque; 14 people were shot, and nine of them died. If it’s passed, the legislation will go into effect on July 1.
Frances Crockett is a civil rights lawyer who, along with attorneys Shannon and Joe Kennedy, filed a wrongful death lawsuit for the Ellises in late May. Crockett drafted the legislation after researching other programs around the country. She spoke with the officers who teach Houston's crisis curriculum, and they said the additional education made a big difference in how the police force responds to calls. “Its been a tremendous benefit, because it provides officers with a better understanding about mental illness,” says Frank Webb, a senior officer with Houston’s training program. “It teaches them the tactics and techniques for safely handling someone in a state of crisis.”
The training in Albuquerque is "bare bones," Crockett says, so the measure aims to add on to what's already in place. Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz says the department already does more crisis education than what’s called for in the bill. Crockett says the training the bill requires would be more focused.
"He was telling me about his son and his life. He was very positive. It's hard to listen to them say 'suicide by cop.' ”
Albuquerque cadets typically spend 30 of 900 training hours on crisis intervention and de-escalation, according to Lt. Ray Torres, director of training at the police academy. A few months ago, Torres said APD was anticipating that a measure such as this would come out of the 2011 session [Newscity, " Is There a Silver Bullet?," Oct. 7-13, 2010]. When he spoke with the Alibi in October, he said 125 of the department's nearly 1,100 officers were certified in crisis intervention. As things stand, New Mexico doesn't have mandatory crisis preparation for law enforcement.
After Crockett and the Kennedys did the research and wrote up the legislation, Jonelle began drumming up support. "I've never worked on anything like this," she says. "It is definitely eye-opening. It's going to show that when things aren't right, it doesn't take an entire group to make a difference. It just takes one person to speak up."
First, she talked with her colleagues at the VA. Eventually, she testified in front of the Legislature's Military and Veterans Affairs' Committee. She suggested that additional education would improve the situation for vets suffering from PTSD. She gained the committee's support, and Rep. Edward C. Sandoval will carry the act into the session that begins Tuesday, Jan. 18. As of press time, the measure hadn't yet been filed.
Sandoval, who's represented an Albuquerque district since 1983, says he expects the bill to generate good discussion. "I think it's got a shot," he says. "It's the right thing to do at this point." Though it might require some funding and times are tight, if it's a small amount, he says, the act should survive. "Hopefully, we can make our case."
It shouldn't cost much since it's supplementing officer education that's already in place, Crockett says. "We don't think it's going to be a big strain."
Crockett says she'd be surprised if the police department put up a fight over the Ellis Act. "I don't see how they can disagree with us on this," she says. "For citizens to be as outraged as they are, for APD to be getting this much bad publicity, there is a problem."
Jonelle Ellis makes a point of saying that this isn't an anti-police bill. "They're good people," she says. "It's not that there's bad cops and good cops, it's just that we've got to train people. Education is power. And if they don't have the education, they're going to make mistakes." She adds that she hopes the measure will make a difference, maybe even for APD officers. "A lot of our police department is coming back from Iraq, or served in the National Guard, and they suffer from PTSD also. Maybe they'll seek out treatment they thought they didn't need."
Crockett and Ellis agree that this act doesn't solve everything, but both say "it's a good start."