Could APD crisis training have saved a veteran’s life?
By Patrick Lohmann
Kenneth Ellis III had a handgun in one hand and a cell phone in the other as he stared down the barrels of nearly a dozen guns wielded by police officers. He gripped a pistol tight against his right temple and waited for his mom to pick up.
Courtesy of Jonelle Ellis
“Mother, I’m at the corner of Constitution and Eubank, at the 7-Eleven with a gun to my head, and 10 cops are looking at me,” Ellis said, according to testimony from his mother. “Shut the fuck up, Mom, and listen to me. I love you, and I love my son.”
This account comes from Det. Jason Morales’ post-shooting investigation.
Ellis ended the call and lowered his cell phone but kept the pistol against his temple. Minutes later, he was dead, shot in the neck below his left ear as he slowly paced in front of the convenience store. Officer Brett Lampiris-Tremba was at first surprised he pulled the trigger, according to the investigation.
“Was that me? That was me, wasn’t it?” the officer asked his peers. And Lampiris-Tremba wasn’t the only one surprised by Ellis’ death. Most of the 15 officers at the scene incorrectly told investigators that the Iraq War veteran abruptly shot himself, that officers were told to shoot only if Ellis pulled the gun from his temple. But he never did.
Lampiris-Tremba, like roughly 975 of 1,100 Albuquerque Police Department officers, opted out of an annual Crisis Intervention Team course, according to APD spokesperson Trish Hoffmann [“Is There a Silver Bullet?” Oct. 7-13, 2010]. It teaches officers skills such as negotiation and communication, how to approach and de-escalate suicide situations, and the basic signs of common psychoses and brain disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I do not think for one second that a police officer should not be accountable for his actions.”
Ellis never threatened officers or civilians during his nine-minute encounter with police on Jan. 13, 2010, according to testimonies from more than 20 witnesses and 15 officers. He asked the officers surrounding him for cigarettes and a bit of space but received neither. Negotiations with Ellis were short or nonexistent, according to those at the scene. Most recount hearing only shouts of “Drop the gun!” from multiple officers throughout the ordeal, which, of course, culminated in Ellis’ death.
There were 14 officer-involved shootings in 2010. In one case, an APD SWAT team was called to assist State Police in Tucumcari, N.M. Information on that fatal shooting is unavailable.
In eight of 13 APD-involved shootings within city limits, the officers did not have crisis intervention training, according to Hoffman. Nine people were killed by APD. Six of those deaths happened at the hands of officers who didn’t have the additional training.
Trey Economidy III—the officer who shot and killed Jacob Mitschelen during a traffic stop Feb. 9, 2011—was the first to pull Ellis over in the 7-Eleven parking lot. Economidy has been in the news lately for listing “human waste disposal” as his job description on Facebook. He also opted out of the crisis intervention training.
Lawyers Frances Crockett, Shannon Kennedy and Joe Kennedy filed a wrongful death lawsuit regarding Ellis in late May. The complaint alleges that Lampiris-Tremba's use of force was unnecessary and that the city was negligent in training the officers. Because of Economidy’s Facebook gaffe, the lawyers are also looking for the usernames and passwords to the profiles of the officers who were at the scene.
Officers-in-training spend 30 of their 900-hour police academy learning crisis intervention basics. Several of APD’s actions during its standoff with Ellis contradict training the officers received early on in their careers, according to academy lesson plans obtained through a public records request.
For example, the crisis intervention curriculum says officers should avoid surrounding those at risk of suicide, take great care to make sure the individual feels understood, and minimize unnecessary noises and crowds. The crisis intervention refresher course, which was offered in December, also reminds officers that “simply repeating commands is not verbal de-escalation.”
In the Ellis standoff, 57 officers showed up to the scene, according to Det. Morales’ investigation. Witnesses told investigators they heard constant shouts of “Drop the gun!” Lampiris-Tremba shot Ellis without direct provocation, as Ellis’ gun was still pointed at his head, according to the investigation.
The veteran was also diagnosed with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury after he returned from Iraq, according to his sister, Jonelle Ellis. Since her brother’s death, she has become an activist for improved accountability and training for police officers [“An Army of One,” Jan. 13-19, 2011]. She helped draft the Kenneth Ellis III Act, or HB 93, which would add 10 hours of intervention training for all officers during police academy, as well as a mandatory two-hour annual refresher. The bill passed in the House with near-unanimous support.
“Law enforcement is a necessity,” Jonelle Ellis says at her home. She flips through hundreds of pages of documents on her kitchen table and a photo album devoted to her brother. “There’s no way to get around that. We need our police officers, but for them to protect the community they need education. I do not think for one second that a police officer should not be accountable for his actions.”
Jonelle Ellis says that, like her brother, more and more officers are returning from wars abroad with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Since veterans are likely trained with weapons, de-escalation is all the more important, she says.
“I think bringing an awareness to officers of what they’re doing—not only to veterans with PTSD but other people with mental illness—and making them accountable for their actions is really going to make a difference,” she says. “I’m really surprised that we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan for greater than 10 years, and we don’t already have this training.”
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