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Know the West

Killings by cops are much more common in Western states

Arrest-related death rates are highest in New Mexico, with Nevada and Oregon close behind.


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 up 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 tenth in New Mexico. As of early December, the cop-related death toll for 11 Western states was at least 181, based on a Wikipedia survey of media reports. National attention has, of late, 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, the West is the worst.

The statistics on such things are notoriously incomplete, depending upon individual law enforcement agencies to report the numbers. 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 without adequate justification. 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.
Screenshot from an Esquire magazine article about the Albuquerque police department's officer-involved shootings.

The heartbreaking stories do little to hint at the reasons for what appears to be a Western epidemic.

About a week after Roughsurface died, I happened to be driving past the area where the shooting took place. I turned up the county road into Spencerville. It’s rough, to put it mildly, a place where poverty lies out in the open like the torn up mattresses and wheel-less cars. But to those who live there, it's home and, presumably, a sort of sanctuary. Dusk was just giving way to dark, and I drove slowly past the humble houses and the single-wides, not sure what I was looking for.

And there, next to a metal fence, a Christmas-themed teddy bear lay in the dirt next to a row of votive candles, some glowing pale. It was here that Roughsurface went from being a living, breathing soul — an intelligent, "easygoing, mellow guy until someone riles him up," his mother told the Farmington Daily Times —to being just a memory, another statistic.


Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He writes from Durango, Colorado. Homepage photograph of protests of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, by Flickr user Light Brigading.