Potential for crisis situation illustrated in case of Farmington man seeking help

Officer's report outlines more than two dozen contacts with man

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Officer Robert Decker is one of four members of the Farmington Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team, which works with individuals with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues who display the potential to do harm to themselves or others.

Note: This is the second of a two-part report on policing and mental health issues in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — At any given time, Officer Robert Decker says, there are four to five people within the jurisdiction of the Farmington Police Department who are making statements or exhibiting behavior that may indicate a threat to the community.

Decker is a member of the department's Crisis Intervention Team, a unit organized in 2015 that includes four officers and is designed to work with such individuals, specifically those displaying symptoms of mental illness. He said the severity of those threats can vary widely. Some are very broad, but others are frighteningly specific.

Such was the case earlier this winter when Farmington police again came into contact with a local man already well known to virtually every public safety agency in the area. The subject — a man with a criminal history dating to 2002 on charges ranging from aggravated assault with a deadly weapon to incidents of domestic violence — has family in San Juan County, but usually finds himself homeless. Police describe him as a known narcotics and alcohol abuser, and say he has told them he suffers from bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress.

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According to a description of the man's case written by Decker and supplied to The Daily Times, the man has featured a so-called "altar of death" on his social media account, where he prays and leaves offerings for revenge and retribution against those he says have wronged him. Family members also have told police he speaks in what they describe as demonic tongues. They say he is obsessed with weapons and idolizes those who have committed acts of mass violence.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said the man's profile reflects the serious threat to public safety that just a handful of troubled individuals can pose in a community. He said his department devotes an enormous amount of time and resources to dealing with the subject, but his officers face limits in their ability to take someone into custody for simply issuing threats, especially if those threats are of an ambiguous nature.

Steve Hebbe

Aside from brief stays in the county jail and mental health facilities, the subject has remained free for most of the time period addressed in this story. Farmington police worry about the potential for his unsteady behavior escalating into a major incident. But they say without a greater availability of mental health resources or broader legal latitude to reign him in under certain circumstances, their hands essentially are tied.

"The biggest threat we face as an agency is having a confrontation with a guy like this," Hebbe said.

An alarming timeline

Over the past 10 months, Farmington police have documented more than two dozen instances in which they or another local police department were summoned to respond to a call involving the subject. Most calls were of a minor nature — some involved simply conducting a welfare check on him, or shoplifting or harassment complaints made against him by business owners — but others involved narcotics use, suicidal threats, domestic violence or fights.

On Jan. 9, the subject's alleged behavior took a more serious turn, according to Decker's account. Earlier that day, after causing a disruption at a local business, the subject had been taken to the emergency room at the San Juan Regional Medical Center so he could receive mental health services. At the hospital, the man became agitated and allegedly began threatening to shoot up the ER — and the responding officers who would be dispatched to stop him.

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The subject allegedly claimed he had a handgun with an extended magazine and another one equipped with a laser, and that he planned to become a bigger mass murderer than the Aztec High School shooter. He allegedly told police he had been planning a mass shooting and that he wanted to go to numerous places around town shooting people, eventually dying himself.

Those comments were particularly alarming to police, given the fact that on two previous occasions, the subject allegedly had been found with a gun in his possession. In one of those instances, which had taken place several months earlier at an Aztec church, police believe the distraught subject had plans to provoke officers into shooting him, a tactic known as committing "suicide by cop."

Officer Robert Decker of the Farmington Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team says helping troubled individuals get on the road to recovery is often a matter of figuring out their motivation.

During the Jan. 9 incident, when police asked him why he was harboring such thoughts, the subject allegedly responded that he was upset about past experiences in which he feels he has been looked down upon and criticized. He claimed he had made numerous attempts to get help and that no one would help him.

Decker wasn't one of the officers who responded to the call, and he did not know the precise resolution of that situation once the subject was subdued because federal health privacy regulations limit the amount of information that health care providers can share with outsiders. But he said it was likely the man, on that occasion, at least, was admitted to the hospital's behavioral health unit to receive the care he needed and said he wanted.

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"At that point, it's up to the doctors to evaluate whether to hold him or release him," Decker said.

That didn't stop Farmington police from taking other action. Due to the nature of the subject's threats and the fact that police believed he was still residing within the department's jurisdiction, they prepared a civil commitment request for him and submitted it to the District Attorney's Office for review. On Jan. 17, the DA's Office approved the request and petitioned the 11th Judicial District Court for a hearing, which was scheduled for Jan. 30.

A summons ordering the subject to appear at the hearing was prepared, but police were faced with the prospect of locating him so that he could be served. That issue was resolved on Jan. 24 when the subject called Farmington police from Bloomfield, explaining that he needed help because he was "about to do something very bad." Farmington CIT officers picked the subject up in Bloomfield and again transported him to the hospital for mental health treatment. He was served his summons then.

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At the man's hearing on Jan. 30, the court found that the subject suffered from a mental disorder and presented a likelihood of serious harm to himself and others. He was ordered to undergo a 30-day stay at the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, New Mexico, for evaluation and treatment. He also was prohibited from possessing or receiving a firearm or ammunition.

Unfortunately, Decker wrote, there was no bed available for the man at that time at the Las Vegas facility. He had been discharged from the hospital before his court hearing, and that left him free to wander the streets as he waited for an opening at the Behavioral Health Institute.

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Several days went by. The subject was involved in two more incidents in which police were summoned, but on Feb. 8, he apparently admitted himself for mental health treatment at the San Juan Regional Medical Center. The behavioral health unit there lacked the space and resources to care for him, Decker wrote, so he was transferred to a facility outside San Juan County.

A bed for the subject opened at the Las Vegas facility shortly thereafter, but he couldn't be located because of a lack of communication between the various entities involved in his case, according to Decker. By the time the DA's Office found out where he was and arranged his transportation, his bed at the Behavioral Health Institute had been given to someone else.

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That left local authorities back at square one in regard to their efforts to seek a civil commitment for the man. If the DA's Office hopes to obtain another 30-day evaluation and treatment period for him at the Las Vegas facility, it must begin the court process anew, Decker said.

The good news, he said, is that since that time, the subject appears to have stabilized. He continues to live outside San Juan County, and the mental health treatment facility he was working with has placed him in a group home. According to the information Decker has received, the man is employed, and is working on his personal recovery and goals.

Out of sight, but not out of mind

Farmington police are encouraged to hear about the man's progress, but Hebbe continues to worry about his potential for becoming involved in a potentially violent situation. The fact that he is residing elsewhere is of little comfort to the chief.

"He's out of our jurisdiction, but he's now in another jurisdiction that doesn't know him as well," Hebbe said, explaining that the lack of familiarity law-enforcement authorities there have with him easily could cause a situation to escalate. "That's not a good thing when they flee your jurisdiction and go someplace where people don't know them."

Helping such troubled individuals get on the road to recovery is often a matter of figuring out their motivation, Decker said, noting that Farmington police have made a serious effort to do that through investigation. In the case of this subject, it is apparent that his relationship to his family is very important to him, and the structure he is receiving through the group home and his job is helping him build a more normal life.

The man has said he wants to make better choices, and Decker said that is the most important factor in helping him avoid a potentially tragic end.

"To hear him say those things is great," Decker said. "It gives me a lot of hope (for him)."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.