Cult of Compliance – Albuquerque Cops Shoot Mentally Ill Homeless Man

This is my 200th post on the blog. It’s not a happy one.

As long-time readers know, my work on the Ethan Saylor case led me to coin the phrase the “cult of compliance.” This phrase allows me to link diverse moments in which authority figures respond to non-compliance with egregious acts of violence and place them against the backdrop of normalized veneration of compliance in our culture.

Flash-bang grenade at Abq park

We only get the stories that make the news, often when a person with disability (which excuses the non-compliance in our eyes) gets hurt. These events are serious, often tragic, and deserve media attention, but the bigger picture of the non-news matters just as much, because recognizing the disease, over the symptom, is critical to effect change. Individual authority figures, whether police officers or principals, need to be held accountable for their actions, but we also need the broader context to understand why the stories keep occurring. Hence, the cult of compliance.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, police shot and killed a mentally-ill homeless man named James Boyd. Here’s the story:

A week ago, APD officers found a 38-year-old man camping in the foothills. A man in mental crisis, he first threatened officers. Then he agreed to surrender, gathered his things and began to walk towards officers as instructed.
That’s when an officer shouts “Do it!” and officers targeted him with a flash-bang grenade normally used in SWAT assaults. He drops his things, steps back from the blast and pulls out two small knives he previously put away at officers’ request.
Then he turns away and they open fire with live rounds and a police dog. He later died.

So the man complies, they throw a grenade, he panics and reaches for knives, but is retreating. Again, he is retreating (follow the link and you can watch the video. I choose not to re-post it here).

We have videos like this because of lapel cameras and car cameras. A fair criticism of the concept of the cult of compliance is that it’s nothing new, that it’s not linked to the militarization of police or any other cultural shift – it’s the way human nature mixes with authority – only now we have video to prove it.  I think technology has played a role in raising awareness about this kind of abuse, and surely specific populations have long been subjected to mandatory compliance. African-Americans call it “the talk,” a conversation in which they tell their children to obey police instantly and completely in order to keep them from being shot.

I think the cult of compliance is spreading, not retreating, not even in the face of greater access to police video and the near-universal presence of cell-phone cameras in most situations. And maybe as it becomes a white suburban problem, white suburban Americans will take notice and push to effect change that can help protect those minority families and people with disabilities (my specific topic) that are so endangered by the cult.

But not so far in Albuquerque. ProgressNow reports that the Albuquerque police have, since 2010, shot more people than the NYPD, despite the relative size differential between the two cities. The DOJ is investigating.

Meanwhile, the local police chief has ruled on the killing. “Justified.”

4 Replies to “Cult of Compliance – Albuquerque Cops Shoot Mentally Ill Homeless Man”

  1. Ginger Stickney says:

    Foucault has written about how power works through normalizing means, and these means are always violent, and when they don't work eradication is always an option. I know he was writing more about "biopower" in this later works, and he talks about the role of surveillance. In light of his work, it's not surprising I think that even with the constant scrutiny this abuse still happens. And of course you're spot on that many people will do nothing until it hits them. Good post. Sad but important.

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