published Friday, April 4th, 2014

Shootings renew call for New Mexico health changes

Riot police stand guard in front of protesters in downtown Albuquerque, N.M.,  in this March 30, 2014, photo. Hundreds of protesters marched past riot police in Albuquerque on Sunday, days after a YouTube video emerged threatening retaliation for a recent deadly police shooting.
Riot police stand guard in front of protesters in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., in this March 30, 2014, photo. Hundreds of protesters marched past riot police in Albuquerque on Sunday, days after a YouTube video emerged threatening retaliation for a recent deadly police shooting.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The recent fatal police shooting of a homeless camper who spent years in and out of jail and New Mexico's only psychiatric hospital has sparked a push for more mental health resources in the state and a law requiring people with severe mental illnesses to take medications or face involuntary hospitalization.

New Mexico is one of only five states without a "Kendra's Law," and advocates say without it, police will increasingly find themselves in situations like the fatal March standoff with James Boyd, the 38-year-old transient was shot and killed by police. That shooting launched a violent protest in the city on Sunday and convinced Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry to ask the U.S. Justice Department to monitor the troubled police department amid a pending federal investigation.

"I think it's time for a law," said Marilyn Salzman, president of the Rio Ranch chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "The families of those struggling with mental illness have been asking for this for a long time now."

Advocates also unveiled plans to build a new mental health hospital.

At a press conference, Berry pleaded for state lawmakers to take action after 37 Albuquerque police shootings since 2010. City officials estimate that up to 75 percent of the suspects in the shootings suffered from some mental illness.

In previous years, New Mexico state lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to get a Kendra's law passed.

According to the Arlington, Va.,-based Treatment Advocacy Center, Maryland, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Connecticut are the four other holdout states who have not approved laws allowing court orders to make mental health outpatients take their medications.

Brian Stettin, the group's policy director, said resistance has come from civil libertarian groups, and key lawmakers have blocked passages of a version of the law in all five states. "The families get it," Stettin said. "Without the law, places like New Mexico will continue to see a revolving door for some between jail and the street."

New York's Kendra's law was named after Kendra Webdale. She was killed in 1999 after being pushed in front of a subway train by a man battling untreated schizophrenia.

According to a Duke University study last year, the state of New York has saved money as a result of its assisted outpatient treatment option. The study said the law prevented those with serious mental health problems from being re-hospitalized.

Last year, Massachusetts lawmakers began talking about a possible law after a mentally ill man kidnapped and murdered a 24-year-old web designer living in South Boston. Authorities said the man had been repeatedly hospitalized for mental health issues, including hallucinations. He also had promised to discontinue taking anti-psychotic medications, authorities said.

Not everyone in New Mexico is jumping on board for the law.

State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said he didn't believe a law would help stop violent clashes between mentally ill patients and Albuquerque police. Instead, he placed the blame on New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez's recent takeover of behavior health organizations over allegations of mismanagement and said Albuquerque police just needed to "stop shooting mentally ill people."

"To get to the heart of the matter, 'mandating' treatment essentially means jailing, or at least threatening to jail someone who has not done anything wrong -- yet," Ortiz y Pino said.

He said that the law would send those struggling with mental illness to jail "for the possibility that they might harm themselves or others" and introduce a "merry-go-round of incarcerations and life outside the law."

Stettin said none of the laws force patients to go to jail. Instead, they send them to hospitals for further evaluation. "We're talking about people who cannot see what's painfully obvious to the people around them," Stettin said. "The alternative is that we're letting people die in the streets in the name of compassion."

Stettin said the Treatment Advocacy Center is planning its own push to convince the last five states to adopt a Kendra's law.

Jim Ogle, an Albuquerque advocate who has a family member battling mental illness, said he hopes New Mexico lawmakers can put aside differences and come up with a solution. "This is not about picking people off the street and forcing them into treatment," Ogle said. "This is about a last resort."

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