As darkness and a chill fell over northwestern New Mexico on a Friday in late November, two men flagged down a San Juan County sheriff’s deputy to report a scuffle, with at least one firearm involved.
The altercation was going down in Spencerville, an ad-hoc collection of homes, beat up cars and dust that lies just off the highway that links the towns of Aztec and Farmington. As the deputies responded, they heard gunshots, and called for backup. Three more deputies arrived, along with a New Mexico state trooper.
As the five deputies approached the area from which the shots came, the trooper flanked off to one side, armed with an AR-15. He saw a “silhouette of a person raising a weapon,” according to a court document, and fired two shots. When a male voice screamed that the trooper had missed, he ran to another location, took aim and fired two more shots. The “silhouette,” a 27-year-old Navajo man named Myles Roughsurface, fell to the ground, dead.
Roughsurface was the third person killed at the hands of law enforcement officers in San Juan County this year, and the 10th in New Mexico. In 2014, the cop-related death toll for 11 Western states was at about 200, based on a Wikipedia survey of media reports. On Christmas Day, for example, Omar Rodriguez, 35, of Coachella, was killed by a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy after Rodriguez reportedly tried to fight her and take her baton.
National attention in recent months has been on the police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner in Missouri, Ohio and New York, respectively. But when it comes to the rate of police-related killings per capita, as we reported last month in “Fatal Encounters,” the West is the worst.
The statistics on such things are notoriously incomplete, depending upon individual law enforcement agencies to report the numbers (a problem the Fatal Encounters effort is attempting to solve). And the numbers, of course, don’t reveal the circumstances of the death—whether a cop fired out of self-defense or to save the life of an innocent, or whether he acted with excessive force. But regardless of which set of stats one uses, this is clear: Westerners are almost twice as likely as Americans as a whole to suffer from “arrest-related death,” as the Department of Justice terms it, or fatal injury due to “legal intervention,” per the nomenclature of the Centers for Disease Control.
From 2004 to 2010, Americans died from legal intervention—which includes not only homicide, but also dying in custody from accidental causes or suicide—at a rate of .13 per 100,000 people. During that same period of time, legal intervention killed Westerners at a rate of .23 per 100,000. New Mexico cops used lethal force at a higher rate than those in any other state; Oregon and Nevada were close behind, and every other Western state had a rate higher than the U.S. average. As was the case in the U.S. as a whole, African Americans were the most likely to be killed by cops in the West over that particular period, followed closely by Native Americans, Hispanics and, finally, non-Hispanic whites; during other periods of time, Native Americans are victimized at the highest rate. Three Navajos were killed over a period of just six months in late 2008 and early 2009; one of the victims was killed by the same trooper who shot Roughsurface.
The killings often go down without getting wide media or public notice. But last spring, Albuquerque Police Department officers shot and killed a homeless man, James Boyd, who was armed with a small knife. The killing was caught on video, drawing national attention to the APD’s history of using excessive force, and inspiring protests. Just a month later, the Justice Department released its report— in the works since 2012—on the department, finding that the “APD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.” Since 2010, according to a KRQE News analysis, APD officers have shot and killed at a rate of four per 100,000 people, which is more than 30 times the national rate.
Utah garnered unwanted national attention as well, after officers from the Saratoga Springs police department responded to a report of a man with a samurai-style sword acting suspiciously outside a Panda Express. After 22-year-old Darrien Hunt, who was black, allegedly lunged at the officers, he was shot dead.
The heartbreaking stories do little to hint at the reasons for what appears to be a Western epidemic. Yet correlations with other stats hint at directions: Western states, for example, have a much higher suicide rate than other states, a possible indicator that untreated mental illness is more prevalent here. Victims of police shootings are often exhibiting signs of mental illness when they’re shot; one of the victims in San Juan County, after behaving erratically and while fighting with police, slashed his own throat just before an officer shot him in the head.
There’s also a loose correlation in the West between police-related shooting rates and economic health. New Mexico, for example, leads the nation in arrest-related deaths, and also has among the highest rates of poverty and income inequality. That can create an environment of desperation, leading to more crime.
Then there’s the West’s gun-loving culture and high rates of firearm ownership and firearm-related killings. Gun-rights advocates argue that the ubiquity of guns deters crime, because a criminal never knows which average Joe might whip out a pistol and blow the would-be criminal away. That same wariness must extend to police officers: If they’re in a region where guns are everywhere, then when a suspect reaches for something in his pocket, it’s reasonable to suspect that it might be a gun.
Whatever reason we might come up with for this sort of violent tragedy, it’s not likely to soothe the sorrow of the victims’ families and friends—or the trauma felt by a police officer who shoots and kills someone, particularly if by mistake.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News, where this story originally appeared.