Shots fired by Santa Fe County deputies in a Tesuque neighborhood Wednesday morning brought the Santa Fe area to its fourth law enforcement shooting in two weeks — an unprecedented number in such a short span.
While New Mexico has ranked high when it comes to police shootings, even leading the nation in fatalities in recent years, such incidents in Santa Fe are less common.
Still, local law enforcement officials say they don’t see any direct connections in the series of shootings — at least two in which officers killed a suspect and three that turned deadly.
Instead, they cite a rise in increasingly violent crime that prompts officers to respond with deadly force.
“I think some of these incidents are becoming more violent,” Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said Thursday. “I’m not really sure what the reasoning is behind it. These officer-involved shootings are definitely concerning for everyone.”
Mendoza added the incidents leading to two shootings involving county deputies in the last two weeks were particularly “volatile.”
On Wednesday morning, Santa Fe County deputies responded to a call at No. 1 Entrada Capulin in Tesuque. An officer fired at least two shots at a suspect, according to neighbors who heard the commotion. New Mexico State Police, which is investigating the shooting, reported a suspect had died but did not confirm whether the death was from a gunshot fired by a deputy or why deputies had been called to the home.
Mendoza said in an interview Thursday a woman severely injured by someone at the home that morning later succumbed to her injuries. He said he was disappointed information about the woman’s homicide had not been released to the public by the investigating agency.
A relative visiting the home Thursday afternoon said the slain woman was her godmother.
Officer Dusty Francisco, a state police spokesman, wrote in an email late Thursday the agency was still preparing a news release on the shooting. Neither he nor Ray Wilson, another agency spokesman, provided answers to questions about the incident.
State police also are investigating a June 23 shooting in which deputies killed a man at Siler Road and Rufina Court after he brandished a gun. The man was suspected of driving a stolen truck and led deputies on two separate chases that day, according to state police.
The agency has not released the names of the slain man or the deputies who killed him.
Earlier June 23, Santa Fe police Sgt. Bradley Lopez shot and killed Francisco Javier Lino-Gutierrez, 29, of Lamy on Old Santa Fe Trail downtown near the Loretto Chapel, according to state police.
Lino-Gutierrez was a suspect in a shooting that morning at nearby De Vargas Park. He led officers on a foot chase through the downtown area and then pointed a gun at them before he was shot, state police said.
And Sunday, state police officers shot and injured 40-year-old Jaime Bravo in a south-side neighborhood.
He had been sitting on railroad tracks off Interstate 25 and later pointed a gun at officers as he fled on foot, the agency said.
While experts say such shootings are unpredictable, local law enforcement leaders say their officers are responding to increasingly severe incidents.
Santa Fe police Deputy Chief Paul Joye said the city agency’s data reflects that.
Aggravated assaults and aggravated batteries are up nearly 25 percent compared to 2019, he said. By June 2019, the department had received 248 reports; as of June 2021, they have received 307.
There was an increase of 143 percent between 2020 and 2021, he said, but added he believes the effects of the coronavirus pandemic created an anomaly in the department’s data, lowering the number of violent crime reports.
The department is seeing more violence now than in the past, Joye said.
“We’re seeing more harm done,” he said. “Whereas before it was a punch in the face, now he’s got a tool or a gun.”
The presence of a deadly weapon is not necessarily what constitutes the need for deadly force, said Ron Martinelli, a retired California police officer and forensic criminologist who specializes in police practices.
“It depends on the distance. It depends on the reaction time. It depends on the behavior of the individual,” Martinelli said. “An officer could use deadly force when they have an objective belief that the person constitutes an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to the officer or a third person.”
Last week, a state police officer wrangled a gun out of the hand of a shoplifting suspect at a Dollar General in Pecos. The man had pointed the weapon at the officer’s face, state police said.
Around 8 a.m. June 30, Officer Ray Montoya responded to the shoplifting call and encountered Isaac Valencia, 39, of Española and two women, state police said in a statement. Valencia pulled out the handgun as Montoya tried to detain him, the statement said. “Officer Montoya maintained physical control of Valencia as they began to wrestle for control of the handgun. During the struggle, Officer Montoya was able to talk Valencia into letting go of the handgun.”
“This incident is another reminder of the dangers my officers encounter every day as they do their jobs,” state police Chief Robert Thornton said in the statement. “I am very proud of Officer Montoya’s composure and professionalism during this violent encounter, and I’m happy he got to go home to his family.”
Valencia was charged with a slew of counts, including aggravated assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Josephine Vigil, 31, of Santa Fe was arrested and charged with shoplifting.
Martinelli said the case was a rare example of an officer’s response to an armed suspect and should not be used in comparison with police shootings.
“We’re not trained to do that,” he said. “We’re not trained to kill them, but we’re not trained to shoot guns out of people’s hands. We’re not trained that if someone has a gun in your face, then you can wrangle the gun out of their hands.”
Santa Fe police Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said officers are trained to spot the largest area on a suspect’s body in a situation calling for deadly force. There is no room for hesitation, Valdez said.
“If we’re talking about a situation where it’s a populated area, it’s next to an area where someone can introduce a hostage, we have to act in a timely manner,” he added.
Ultimately, he said, every situation should be looked at individually.
Mendoza echoed that.
“Every situation is unique,” he said. “There may be suspects who, when confronted, drop the weapon and comply. There may be times when they don’t comply and the threat towards officers and the public is immediate.
“We have responded to a fair amount of armed suspects, and it’s ended peacefully,” he added. “That’s how we want it to end — no injuries, nobody’s hurt, officers go home.”