ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Police have been arresting the same guy for causing disturbances at the same businesses for years. Each time, the charges are dropped and he gets out of jail because he is found incompetent. Then, it happens all over again.
Albuquerque Police Department Sgt. Louis Armijo is starting to lose track.
“How many times have I, we, arrested you out of Del Taco? About three or four,” he told Pierre Williams.
“You kidnapped me,” Williams responded.
“Three or four. How many out of the Circle K? At least two or three. Now, it’s gonna be the Speedway,” Sgt. Armijo said.
This was from an incident in August.
“You’re under arrest for criminal trespass, okay?” Sgt. Armijo explained to Williams.
Police video shows a similar encounter in September.
“You’re under arrest. You’re not supposed to be here,” Sgt. Armijo said as he put Williams in handcuffs.
Police saw Williams again in October.
“I served you with a trespass notification on Tuesday, and I made it clear to you that you were not to be here, okay? So, go ahead and stand up,” Sgt. Armijo explained. “You’re under arrest. You’re under arrest for criminal trespass.”
It must feel like a bad case of déjà vu. KRQE News 13 combed through court records and found that officers have arrested or cited Williams more than 50 times in the last two years for criminal trespassing at a handful of restaurants, convenience stores and hotels near Coors and I-40.
Police see him up to five or six times in busy months. Yet, every case is dismissed and the police calls come rolling in again.
Police are responding to disturbances, like the time a convenience store clerk said Williams threw Gatorade on an elderly customer and then threatened to rape the employee. Williams knows, though, he never stays behind bars for long.
“I’m always in court. I’m always in court. It is always that I’m… found… you know, innocent. For real,” Williams told Sgt. Armijo before a trespassing arrest.
“You’re not found innocent,” Sgt. Armijo replied.
“I’m never found guilty,” Williams retorted.
“It’s not ’cause of innocence or guilt,” Sgt. Armijo said. “And if you think that’s a free card to keep you from going to jail, you’re wrong.”
The court never decides if Williams is guilty or not because he is found incompetent to stand trial instead. As a result, his cases get dismissed by law because he is accused of nonviolent crimes and the courts do not consider him dangerous. So, he is released and the cycle continues.
“Those cases you feel like you’ve pretty much failed,” said APD Lt. Matt Dietzel with the Crisis Intervention Section.
Because, of course, Williams is not the only case like this where competency or concerns over behavioral health issues come into play.
“Is there a better way to handle these kinds of cases?” KRQE News 13 asked.
“It’s really hard,” he said. “It’s a question that everybody struggles with. Do you focus on treatment? Or do you focus on punishment?”
Lt. Dietzel said the department is getting more creative in those cases. He pointed to the expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program.
“It’s just one more tool that we have,” Lt. Dietzel said. “In the old days it was, you really had two options: Make an arrest or do nothing. So, anything we can do to kind of get in between those two extremes is a good thing.”
LEAD allows officers with APD’s Problem Response Teams to decide when to send low-level, nonviolent offenders into treatment instead of jail. The hope is, it will get at the heart of the issue if drug abuse, mental illness or homelessness is really the driving force behind the crime in the first place.
“The offender would have to stick with it, and, if they don’t stick with it, those charges come back and we’re back in the criminal justice system,” Lt. Dietzel said.
While that’s a voluntary treatment program, the city and the Bernalillo County District Court also launched an involuntary, assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) program in October, called New Directions. Lisa Schatz-Vance is the program manager.
“Ideally, we want to be able to utilize AOT as a tool for individuals before they find themselves in a situation of self-harm or harming of others or picking up criminal charges,” she said.
So, here’s how it works. When someone will not get help for a mental health diagnosis on their own and is ending up in jail or the hospital as a result, a roommate, family member or qualified professional can take action.
They can ask a civil court judge to order that person into the year-long treatment program, which can include things like case management services, therapy and medication. It aims to reduce hospitalization, incarceration and homelessness while improving the lives of people suffering from serious mental illnesses.
“For our first year of operation, we are projected to serve approximately 100 individuals,” the program manager said.
This has been a long-time coming. The law that paved the way for programs like these in New Mexico passed back in 2016. However, Albuquerque just got a federal grant to fund the program here about a year ago.
Doña Ana County has had its own program for three years now and says, it works. The county sent video with testimonials.
“They’ve made me confident that I can accomplish anything I need to and I’ve got contact with all of my children now. I’m just, I’m stable,” said Michelle Ortegon, a program participant.
However, having treatment programs available is only half the battle. Mental health defense attorney Max Kauffman points out the need for communication and collaboration between agencies like the Public Defender’s office, the District Attorney’s office, police and the jail with treatment providers to make sure people in need are identified early and actually get connected to available services.
“One of the fundamental issues that we see in Albuquerque is that there’s no coordination between all these parties,” he said. “So we’re doing duplicating efforts or we’re not addressing the needs when they need to be addressed and so people are falling through the cracks.”
But he’s hopeful the work of a local criminal justice council is changing that.
“It feels that there’s hope on the horizon for many individuals suffering mental illness in this community,” he said.
For many, but for Williams, it’s still unclear. His arrest numbers keep climbing. He ended up in jail again as recently as yesterday.