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Law enforcement experts explain training for situations with mental health, weapons

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LAS CRUCES, New Mexico – Law enforcement experts on Friday commented on the complexity of emergency calls in which a person has mental health issues or weapons, such as knives.

“We’re having to process things real time: in milliseconds,” said Clint McNear, a field services supervisor for the Texas Municipal Police Association. “We have to do what we have to do to protect the community and ourselves.”

“If you as a police officer are responding to a scene where there is an aggressive individual with a knife, the first thing you have to do is preserve life,” said Jennifer Szimanski, a spokeswoman for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. “It’s very difficult to wrap your head around how dangerous someone approaching you with a knife can be.”

On Thursday, the family of the 75-year-old with dementia said they suffered a “terrible and tragic horrific loss” when she was shot and killed by an unidentified officer last month. They said Amelia Baca, who was holding two knives, was threatening other family members in the home.

“Let me be blunt,” said Sam Bregman, an attorney for the family. “Amelia Baca was executed by the Las Cruces Police Department on April 16 of this year. This should never have happened. It did not need to happen.”

For the first time on Tuesday, the city released video showing every moment of the deadly shooting. An officer made multiple commands to Baca: twice, he told her to “set it down,” nine times he used variations of “drop the knife,” twice he told her to “put them on the ground” and three times he told her to “put it down now.”

“Anytime someone has a deadly weapon, deadly force is justified,” McNear said. “One of the things about tasers is they’re not an absolute. Once she begins to advance toward him, a taser is not an option.” 

“If they’re not following commands, the threat level is much higher,” Szimanski said. “We can’t get into the minds of an individual who is failing to follow police commands, but we do know and we regularly verbalize that anything other than compliance is seen as aggression toward the officer.”

Baca’s granddaughter, Albitar Inoh, can be seen in the video telling that officer, “Please be very careful with her.” There were multiple family members on the tense scene around the house. In a police interview following the incident, Inoh said she didn’t believe her grandmother would hurt anybody.

“If she would have been aggressive, she would have attacked me,” Inoh said in the police interview. “She didn’t attack me.”

“Mental health is something all peace officers are trained on, but the understanding of mental health can only take place once a scene has been rendered safe,” Szimanski said.

“Emergency responders are not afforded the luxury to review the situation, think of plans and alternate plans, review again, then develop what they would have done,” wrote McNear. “These are rapidly developing dangerous calls that an officer has milliseconds to act.”

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