KUNM's Public Health New Mexico reporting project has been investigating Albuquerque Police Department shooting deaths with an eye on behavioral health issues. This week, we’re looking at officer mental health.
Paul Ielacqua was an APD Aviation officer from 2001 to 2008 but has worked in law enforcement—at the Bernalillo County jail and Conchas Lake—since 1996. He talked to KUNM about how police handle their own mental wellness in high-stress situations.
IELACQUA: It seems like when you put that uniform on, you don’t have a friend in the world. And it’s really hard, and it’s unfortunate, too, because a lot of times your only friends—or you feel like—the only person that you can trust is the person wearing the uniform next to you.
KUNM: Do police officers kind of look out for each other’s mental health and wellbeing?
IELACQUA: Yeah, they do. And it’s kind of an interesting culture, because so many times you’ll see something horrific on the news, and you’ll see police officers looking at each other laughing and giggling. Well, a lot of times they’re doing that because that’s their way of venting or getting it out.
Probably, I would say sometimes, the officers are more in tune with each other than their own family members are with them. And they know their moods and their feelings.
KUNM: Do you think it’s true that police officers in general do a lot of interacting with mentally ill folks?
IELACQUA: Every day. Every day, and in fact I would say that the huge majority of the calls is either alcohol, substance abuse or somebody that is ill—or what is known as dual-diagnosis folks. Officers do have to deal with that on a daily basis.
KUNM: Do you have any particular stories that kind of stand out from your time that you can relay?
IELACQUA: Yeah, I do actually have quite a few stories, but a couple that stick out in my mind. I was a rookie, and I was riding with a veteran officer. It was a 10-40, a mental patient call. We show up—an old trailer park in the Southeast—and it was an elderly couple in their late 80s. They were with their mentally ill son, who was unclean, unbathed, and you could tell he’d probably been off his meds for a while. And I’ll never forget the fear in their eyes.
I also remember the officer I was with. He’s retired now. There was a big knife, like a meat-cutting knife, laying on the floor next to this guy’s feet. And I can remember the veteran officer, the friend of mine, just very patient and talking in a very low voice. And I asked him later, I said, well, “Why were you talking so softly to the guy?” And he says well, he goes, “If you think about it, the lower I talk, the more he’s got to pay attention to me. So he is focusing all his attention onto my voice."
And so later on in my career, I actually tried that. And I would be where somebody was talking, maybe not shouting but very agitated, and I would bring my voice down, and I would start talking lower, and it would bring them lower. And it actually works.
KUNM: What is it like dealing with someone who’s in an extreme moment of crisis, whether because of drugs or because of mental illness or both?
IELACQUA: It can be tough, and it also can be rewarding. I always remember an instructor saying: Life before property. And the biggest thing is trying to protect life. And that includes, not only your own life, but the person that’s in crisis, but everybody else’s that’s around you. And sometimes, depending on where you’re at and what the situation is, it can be very demanding. It can be a very tough thing, because you have to make quick decisions on your feet right then and there, which can be life-taking or life-threatening, and you have a lot to worry about. Every situation’s different, every person’s different, and sometimes you have no idea what you’re about to encounter.
This story is part of Public Health New Mexico's ongoing series about APD shooting deaths and public health. The project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.