|Assembling on the Mountainside where James Boyd was Executed|
His campsite was his home. A home in the midst of extraordinary desert beauty, the sort of thing that captivates those of us who live in New Mexico, filled as it is with a wonderful, harsh majesty. Here in the Sandias, on the west face of the mountains from James Boyds' home-place/campsite, the view stretches gloriously for miles, over the dusty and gritty city of Albuquerque "all the way to California." Well, not quite that far, but plenty far, to Mt. Taylor, sacred to the Diné People, some eighty miles away.
I wanted to visit the site to pay my respects, but the hike was a bit too much for me. I have to content myself with the view up the hill, and the moving memorial service presented last night in a small clearing down below, just to the left, out of view in the picture.
About 50 people, not counting media, but including James Boyd's brother, attended last night's 3 Month Memorial to honor the memory of the man whose friends called "Abba." Those who knew him declared him to be a gentle, creative soul whose difficulties in life were due to a condition over which he had no control, and for which he received scant treatment. As one of the speakers, a legislator on the State Behavioral Health subcommittee, pointed out, in New Mexico -- as in many other places -- the most extensive "mental health care facilities" are the jails.
James Boyd's death didn't have to happen and it might not have happened had there been some means or someone available to intervene that tragic day in March when he was shot to death for being... different and difficult. There will be other rationales, there always are, for his summary execution on the hillside, but the main reasons, as is so often the case, were his difference and the difficulty of dealing with him through persuasion and threat.
One woman, whose name I didn't get, said she knew "Abba" casually, that she had met him one evening when she took her daughter up near his campsite "to see the stars" and he had greeted them with dignity and interest, and he had urged their caution up in the hills. She said she came to know something of his situation, and she could empathize because there was someone in her family who suffered schizophrenia, someone who, like "Abba" wished to harm no one, but only wanted the peace of solitude and the sky overhead and open country all around. She said she wished someone had known to call her when the confrontation that led to his death took place, for she would have gladly intervened and might have been able to prevent his death. She broke down in tears telling her story, as did many others. This affront to the conscience and the dignity of all of us did not have to happen.
But it did, and the consequences have reverberated around the world.
The consequences for Albuquerque and New Mexico have been severe. There are sporadic boycotts of the state's tourist industry, people refusing to vacation in New Mexico or to visit Albuquerque, people who express fear of what might happen to them if by some unfortunate chance or fate they are confronted by the local constabulary. There have been so many stories, and so many outrages, in many parts of New Mexico. The seemingly out of control police are part of New Mexico's lore and legend these days, and the sense that their potential for the arbitrary imposition of authority and use of deadly force to compel compliance, whether warranted or not, seems to be pervasive.
It's been said that police are not nearly as violent and deadly now as they once were, even with all the shootings of suspects that occur with such gut-wrenching regularity. No, it was worse in the past they say, and there was much more crime as well, but we forget. We see and hear of the nearly constant abuse and gunfire by police and we assume it's worse now than ever. Local news, especially, is focused, laser-like, on every report of crime, so it sometimes seems like we're swamped in a sea of criminality, and many fear they will become the victims of random criminals they just know are lying in wait for them. Crime statistics don't bear it out; violent crime is at the lowest point in generations, and the likelihood of any random individual being the victim of a violent criminal is slight. It's not as slight, though, as the chance of a police officer being killed or wounded by one of these criminals. Police officers are rarely killed or injured on the job, making police work one of the safest professions.
The police did not have to kill James Boyd, they didn't have to confront him with high-powered rifles pointed at his face, they didn't have to marshal a dozen or more officers in bullet-proof vests (oddly, few of the officers who confronted Boyd were uniformed; it's puzzled me from the get go.) They didn't have to have their dogs, their flash-bangs, their bean-bag rounds and their shotguns to fire them.) None of it was necessary. James Boyd wasn't harming anyone and was not about to harm anyone. If it was necessary to get him off the mountain because he was camping illegally, practically anyone with a lick of sense and even modest skills at dealing with the homeless mentally ill in a non-threatening and non-confrontational manner might have been able to do it.
The police could not. They had neither the skills nor the desire. Instead, they precipitated and escalated a confrontation, making the situation much more threatening and frightening for Boyd than it should have been, and when Mr. Boyd finally agreed to go with them down the mountain, even though he feared for his life, someone had already given the order to execute him. As he gathered a few of his things and began to comply, he was subjected to a flash-bang grenade and a barking, snapping police dog, and as he turned away in fear, he was shot repeatedly by two officers with high powered rifles, shot in the back, shot in the arms, paralyzed. He fell, unable to move, and the dog bit him in the legs. He was shot three more times in the buttocks with bean bag rounds, and he was ordered to "drop the knives" even though he could no longer move his arms, and even though he was mortally wounded in the torso. The wounds of a suspect do not matter to police attempting to secure a scene. The wounded suspect must comply with commands even when unable to do so. The suspect is considered armed and dangerous, no matter his or her wounds, until and unless control over the suspect is complete. If the suspect bleeds out and dies, oh well. Too bad, so sad.
Police almost never express official repentance under these circumstances, though some are privately mortified and devastated. What happened to James "Abba" Boyd at that gorgeous site in the Sandia foothills that afternoon in March was a terrible thing, unconscionable any way you look at it, and many of those who spoke at his memorial last night wanted to ensure that his death was not in vain. They called out for justice, true, but for justice that made life better for others, not for revenge.
They didn't use the term but they were calling for Reparative or Restorative Justice. It couldn't bring back James Boyd, but if it could be done at all, it would honor his memory through the good works that could be done for others in his name.
The police did a terrible thing, an unconscionable thing, when they shot and killed James Boyd on March 16, 2014, and surely some of them understand -- in the abstract -- that what they did was "wrong." They're trained not to take responsibility for their actions, so it's quite possible that those who shot Boyd or fired grenades or loosed their dog on him have no sense of remorse and take no responsibility for their actions. They are inculcated with the belief that the victim is always to blame, that the police were only there to enforce the law, protect the peace.
Reparative justice usually isn't applied in cases of such violence. Its practitioners see it as a way to deal with minor and social crimes and affronts rather than with major incidents like this. It's much like the way I was trained in conflict resolution: CR is not an appropriate means of dealing with violent conflicts or acts of war. I thought at the time that this was an artificial and unnecessary restriction on the use of a valuable tactic for resolving conflict, and I wondered why practitioners were so reluctant. But that's a separate issue.
In the current situation of seemingly out of control police violence, such as the death of James Boyd, I kept thinking back to the efforts in Sacramento I was involved in almost 20 years ago to curb police brutality and change police culture from one a predatory and violent gang-like mentality and approach to their job to one of cooperation and commitment to dignity, justice, community and peace.
It was a big challenge, and the community came together in unexpected ways to ensure the challenge was met. It was met in part by a commitment to repairing damaged or forgotten relationships, to restoring trust, and to building community rather than destroying it.
Restorative justice, in other words, though the term wasn't used. The police weren't forced to admit wrong-doing, but they changed their ways. The public wasn't forced to submit unduly to police command, but they came to respect the police more and to cooperate with them to make a better community.
Complaints against police and the incidents of brutality and misconduct were reduced dramatically. Complaints were cut in half or more than that, and the incidents of police officers killing suspects or innocent bystanders were reduced to -- in some years -- zero.
It was a remarkable achievement. It took years, but it was done. It still needs work. Throughout the process of reforming the Sacramento Police Department, a parallel process was attempted with the county sheriff's department without much success. The sheriff was in charge of the jail and his deputies were charged with law enforcement outside the city limits, and they had developed an unrepentant and independent culture that included a good deal of "physical persuasion" that caused more than a few injuries and periodic deaths.
However, in recent years, a new sheriff, a man of considerable achievement, and I believe a man of honesty and good will, has set the department on a new path that is more in line with the practices of the city police department. Whether he will succeed, I don't know, but I know he's trying.
Albuquerque's situation is much more bloody to start with. Complaints in Sacramento focused on police brutality -- beatings, home invasions, false arrests and so on -- meant to intimidate and terrify residents, but rarely involving police killing suspects. It happened, but it was relatively rare. As I recall, a more frequent problem was police running down pedestrians and bystanders in their high-speed efforts to chase suspects or get to crime scenes. That, too, changed.
But in Albuquerque, the police are notorious not just for brutality but for numerous public, summary executions. They kill. They kill with appalling frequency and with more or less complete impunity. They are not charged, they are not even held to account, and some officers on the beat have more than one killing to their credit. Some are valued for their skills at killing. Their killing devastates families, disrupts and destroys communities, and it has brought scrutiny and disrepute to the city. The execution of James Boyd wasn't the last straw by any means, but it became the catalyst for upheaval and change.
What would reparative or restorative look like in this situation? I've only thought about it superficially, so what follows is sketchy at best, but it may be a starting point for further exploration.
There's a necessary pre-condition: an acknowledgement that the killing of James Boyd was wrong. There have been many previous financial settlements and court awards for previous killings by APD, and there is a suit for damages in process on behalf of James' family. Typically, the police and city do not admit wrongdoing, but they agree to pay substantial settlements to survivors nonetheless. These settlements and judgements, however, are not "reparative." They are acknowledgements of loss.
In a reparative system, once there is an acknowledgement of wrong, steps can be taken to repair the consequences, to set right what was wrong. I would look at the situation and suggest that part of setting right the wrong that was done would involve disarming every one of the officers who were part of the confrontation with James Boyd, and permanently disarming the ones who shot him as well as those who fired grenades and bean-bags. They may have been following protocol, but it was a wrong protocol under the circumstances, and they didn't think through what they were doing. They are not robots. They could have refrained and they could have restrained their colleagues. They didn't.
Thus they should not have access to weapons in the future, as they've shown they cannot use them responsibly in appropriate circumstances, circumstances which should be vanishingly rare in any case.
Not only should every officer involved in the confrontation be disarmed, and those who fired on Boyd in any way or shot and killed Boyd should be disarmed permanently, but their commanders and supervisors should be removed for cause: they didn't act responsibly, and they didn't provide the officers under their command with appropriate guidance and tools to do their jobs. We're not sure exactly who was in command, but those who were hold the ultimate responsibility for what happened to James Boyd, and if they were honorable, they would have resigned in shame. Since, so far as we know, they have not done so, they will have to be publicly identified and removed by other means.
Once those important steps are taken, the repairs can begin. We can think of what needs to be done. One thing that was mentioned at "Abba's" memorial was that he wasn't forced to live in the hills, he was there because he wanted to be there, because he loved being outdoors and he loved the Sandia foothills. He didn't want to bother anyone, he just wanted to feel independent and free. And yet someone who lives just down the hill from where Boyd was camping complained to the police, apparently calling several times after the police initially did nothing or didn't follow up.
This person needs to understand that his actions led directly to the death of someone who wasn't harming him or anyone else. Boyd may have been in violation of the camping regulations, but he was not a threat, nor was he intentionally causing any harm.
But the man who called police to complain of someone camping illegally in the foothills probably believed he had no alternative, that calling the police was the proper thing to do. And he probably had no intention at all that James Boyd would be killed as a consequence. So many people are killed by police because someone thought that the proper thing to do was to call the police to intervene or to help a loved one in distress. I've often said, "Don't call 911 in those cases unless it is clearly and obviously a medical emergency. Your loved one is likely to be killed, not helped otherwise."
The American 911 system does not provide "help" in too many situations. For whatever reason, many Americans believe it does -- or it should -- without the use of deadly force. And many Americans believe there is no alternative to calling 911; in many cases, they're right.
So part of reparative justice in this case must be the provision of alternatives. Camping illegally should not be subject to the death penalty, no matter how annoying the camper might be. Nor should a death squad be sent to deal with an illegal camper. Where were the alternatives? The resident who called felt he had none, the 911 dispatcher felt there was no alternative, the police felt they had none. Why? Why was the only option to send a literal death squad to root out this (terrorist?) camper?
What would have happened if someone skilled at dealing with mentally ill and homeless populations had been dispatched instead? James "Abba" Boyd was well known in the homeless community, he was well liked, even admired. Many, many people knew him and any of them might have been able to talk to him that day and help him to understand why his camping there was a problem and if there had been an acceptable alternative available for Boyd, they might well have been able to convince him to give up that campsite. But they didn't know till after he was dead that there was a problem they might have been able to alleviate.
On the other hand, what harm, really, was Boyd doing, apart from violating the regulations on camping? His camp was out of sight, it was well-cared for, it was his little bit of nature, and according to some who met him, he was acting as an informal host to those who came up the mountain. Who or what was he harming? No one and nothing, as far as I can see.
What would have happened if he had not only been allowed to stay, but he was given an informal position as a kind of host to those traveling that trail? What harm would be done? What joy might he have had, and how much might he have been able to share with hikers?
These are the kinds of alternatives that need to be built in to potential or real crisis situations. And these are the kinds of alternatives that can repair communities, can build and strengthen bonds and trust. These are very simple alternatives, sane and direct. They don't require massive bureaucracies and formal procedures. They're common sense.
Common sense? The preferred alternative, no?
Reparative justice of course involves a great deal more than these few suggestions. Repairing the harm done to Albuquerque's citizens by the police will take many efforts by many people of good will. There is a great deal of anguish to overcome. Many of the wounds are still fresh, and for some, they can never heal. But the efforts must be made, and what I saw and heard last night convinced me that the community is ready and willing. The question is whether the police and city administration are.
Some news reports to add to the mix:
Andrew Jones, "Abba's" brother, honor's James Boyd's memory"