LAS VEGAS, N.M. (KRQE) – From the streets to prison and back again. There are people in the community who have committed crimes that the courts have deemed “incompetent to stand trial” and, as the KRQE study revealed, their cases often go unnoticed.
But what if the person judged to be “incompetent” also poses a danger?
KRQE Investigates shows viewers what happens when competency is called into question at New Mexico’s largest behavioral health lab in Las Vegas, New Mexico. How it works and who it serves.
KRQE’s latest findings:
Tucked away in northern New Mexico, Behavioral Health Institute (BHI) The facility was originally known as the state’s “semi-psychiatric hospital.”
“This field has changed dramatically,” explained Dr. Tim Shields, executive director of BHI. Mr. Shields and his staff at BHI are taking on a job that most people might shy away from.
“You know, there’s still a lot of stigma out there about working in an inpatient psychiatric unit or a forensic unit, and it scares people,” Shields explained. “Because they are sometimes perceived as being more difficult to work with people.”
Dr. Shields added: I think it’s more fun to work with populations, and it’s more rewarding to work with populations. But it’s hard to convince someone who’s never been in one of these units that, look, believe me, this is fun. ”
Long before modern medicine, Las Vegas hospitals housed people with behavioral health problems. “They’re going to send them to these institutions across the country,” Dr. Shields explained. “And then in the ’70s, we started getting better drugs and thinking differently. And we tried to move a lot of these facilities from detention facilities to treatment facilities.” he said.
“We’re going to aggressively treat their behavioral health conditions and try to get them back into the community in a safe way,” Dr. Shields explained.
The state hospital is supervised by the New Mexico Department of Health and has five departments on a 300-acre campus.
- Community-based services – Behavioral health outpatient service providers providing support to the community.
- CARE – Center for Youth Relationship Explorationaimed at ages 13 to 17.
- adult psychiatry – Provide hospitalization for civil obligations and treat serious and persistent mental illnesses.
- meadows – Long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.
- Forensic Medicine Department – Treatment of defendants deemed incompetent and dangerous to stand trial. Most people receive treatment that restores their abilities and are released, but some are “irreversible” and remain for a long time.
What if someone is incompetent and dangerous?
The forensics division handles New Mexicans who have been ordered to appear in court. “So these are people who are alleged to have committed a crime, but then they go and talk to their defense attorney, but they can’t assist the defense attorney in their defense,” Dr. Shields explained.
It is the lawyer who raises the issue of “competence.” If a court determines that a defendant is incompetent or dangerous to stand trial, judges in any county in New Mexico can order treatment at BHI in Las Vegas to make the defendant competent.
Most referrals to BHI come from Albuquerque. “This is the largest city, so you’re going to get a lot out of it,” Dr. Shields said.
According to court records, Gerardo Leon had previously been found “incompetent to stand trial” and was subpoenaed by BHI in 2017. A criminal complaint in the child abuse case against Leon states that a group of middle school students reported that Leon had attacked them. In 2016, he hit a boy in the face with a three-foot pole at Bataan Memorial Park.
Dr. Shields explains that when someone is referred to BHI, he and his medical staff work to treat the root cause of that person’s symptoms. “We treat them as if they were human beings. Often in communities, everyone runs away from or tries to avoid someone who is reacting to an internal stimulus. That’s not the case. . We approach them, we talk to them, we make them feel safe,” Shields added.
Returning to life outside the hospital presents challenges
After treatment in Las Vegas, Leon was released and pleaded guilty to the child abuse case. His service period was recognized with merit, and he spent one year at his MCD.
However, the police will receive another call about him. “So who got hit?” An Albuquerque police officer is seen on chest-crossing video responding to a call at a Walgreens on Central and Eubank in 2021. The guard replied: My face is getting hot. ”
Albuquerque police received a report after an employee said Leon was cursing at police for no reason and beat three security guards. “He walked up to us and started flipping over,” one of the guards explained.
Guards said they were able to handcuff Leon and waited at least an hour before APD contacted the store. “We don’t want it to fly like this,” the guard told the APD officer.
After viewing security footage and speaking with officers, an APD officer explained, “We can send the charges to court, but we can’t take you anywhere.” The officer told Walgreens staff and security that Leon would not be going to jail that night.
When the Walgreens manager asked the officer why Leon wasn’t arrested, the officer replied, “In New Mexico, misdemeanor aggravated assault is not an arrestable crime.” A trespass report was the best the officer could have done, he explained.
“He doesn’t care,” a disgruntled Walgreens manager told officers. “Don’t worry about people who have nothing to lose. They are the ones who pose a threat to me.”
The Walgreens manager went on to tell officers about encounters with people in the store who were clearly suffering from mental health issues. She also expressed frustration with delayed or no police response and “low priority” status from dispatchers who don’t require a quick response.
“Because he needs medication,” the manager explained. “I’m worried that he will come and do something stupid with us. No one will be able to protect us in a timely manner,” she told officers.
“We’re just frustrated,” the guard said. “Of course. I don’t blame you,” the APD officer responded.
Leon has an extensive criminal history dating back 23 years. His charges include aggravated assault, assault and Bataan Park child abuse case.
Is the process going well?
Once you are released from BHI in Las Vegas, where you have been supported by medical professionals, you often face other challenges. Staying on the right path depends on the support of individuals and communities.
When asked if the process is working well for people, KC Quirk said, “I don’t think it’s working very well.” Mr. Quirk is the Director of Social Work at the Albuquerque Office of the Public Defender (LOPD).
“Whether someone meets the criteria to be considered competent to stand trial is entirely separate from whether we have regard for that person’s health,” Quirk explained. She also said that sending someone for a mental health evaluation often doesn’t lead to that person receiving wraparound services, resulting in a missed opportunity.
And this is where resources outside of hospitals and prisons come in handy, especially since the stay at BHI in Las Vegas is temporary.
“It’s like a benign handover,” Dr. Shields said, referring to the process of releasing defendants from BHI. Shields said 80% of defendants referred to BHI are usually restored to standing trial within the first six months.
“New Mexico has a lot of great community programs,” Dr. Shields said. “But we tend to need more help when we discharge someone from here. Are we confident that they have a safe place to stay? Are you sure you’re making sure you go and take your medication?”
Another resource for ‘Mental Health Court’
District Court Judges Lucy Solimon and Bruce Fox preside over the Bernalillo County Mental Health Court, a diversion program aimed at addressing the root causes of crime, such as substance abuse and health behaviors.
“These conversion courts, you know, started with drug courts 30 years ago,” Judge Fox explained. “The idea was to provide an alternative to probation and prison.”
Attorneys can refer defendants to this program, usually as part of a plea agreement. “In some cases, the judge may order it as part of the conditions of release,” Judge Solimon explained. “If you look at the case and how it happened and you see a pattern, sometimes you know that going to mental health court might be the right path.”
The justices agreed that one of the biggest hurdles for defendants is usually access to stable housing and medical care. “That’s already difficult for many people with very clear minds and intellectual backgrounds,” Judge Fox explained. “And you can also imagine if someone is not properly medicated and needs to renew their prescription.”
“The greatest successes I’ve seen here in district court are when we’re changing people’s behavior, getting them the medication they need, giving them stable housing, and providing them with the resources they need to address substance abuse. ” said Judge Solimon. “Then they reach a point where they can lead a stable life without reoffending.”
But the judge said a person must be voluntary. Treatment through the Mental Health Court is voluntary. “We have made a real effort to get people to open up, to talk and to give advice to our team members,” Judge Fox said. “It’s really a collaborative effort.”
He also said diversion courts have the ability to go beyond adversarial courts where lawyers on both sides are trying to win cases. In mental health court, lawyers from both sides, a judge and medical professionals are part of the defendant’s team, Fox explained.
But what about those who can’t or won’t help themselves?
KRQE asked about civil commitments, separate legal procedures for physicians to consent to, and the possibility that people with behavioral health issues may engage in treatment involuntarily. It happens, but it’s rare.
“It gets a little complicated because you’re basically talking about civil rights and taking someone’s freedom away,” Judge Fox said.
“The reason our civil commitment standards are what they are today is because the civil commitment process was abused and people were mistreated,” Quirk explained. “In the ’80s and ’90s, there was a huge deinstitutionalization in mental health facilities, right? But we didn’t build a safety net.”
While asking people for help can seem like an uphill battle in this system, Dr. Shields points out: ”
“The more we can repeat that and let people know that this is a good group to work with, that they need support, and that they need to be treated well,” SEALs he explained. “If you do that, you’ll get really great results.”
BHI in Las Vegas employs approximately 600 staff across its campuses. Dr. Shields said BHI needs more direct care staff. “We appreciate that there are people out there who want to help bathe people, help people eat, all of which are truly an honor,” Dr. Shields said.
The state Legislature recently approved $68 million to replace the aging forensics department in Las Vegas, which will increase the hospital’s capacity. The new unit is scheduled to open in 2026.
The average length of stay at BHI for competency treatment is six months, but some defendants stay longer. So did John Hyde, who was accused of randomly killing five people in 2005.
Hyde was found incompetent to stand trial and is serving the equivalent of a life sentence in a Las Vegas hospital. While he is there, a forensic psychologist is still keeping the court updated on his mental state.