Editor’s note: This story contains discussion of suicide. If you’re feeling suicidal, you are not alone. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact Student Health and Counseling at UNM at 505-277-313
Seconds before being shot in the hip and side of the head by Albuquerque police officer Jose Ruiz, 26-year-old Max Mitnik calmly said to Ruiz, “I’m going to suffer a lot if I don’t kill myself. Will you please kill me, sir? Kill me.”
Albuquerque Police Department body camera footage released last week shows the events that led to the June 4 shooting that left Mitnik alive but severely injured. The following is a breakdown of the 911 call that preceded the shooting and the police lapel footage that captured it.
The 911 call
After a month-long delay by the city, the Daily Lobo obtained a copy of the 911 call that precipitated the shooting. In the nearly 13-minute-long call, Michael Mitnik said his son Max — who has a diagnosed serious mental illness — needed help.
Michael Mitnik said Max hadn’t been taking his medication for several days and had been refusing to go to the hospital, but had changed his mind.
“Now he wants to go to the hospital, but he won’t go in the car with us. He says he’s afraid he’s going to hurt us,” Mitnik said.
Mitnik asked the operator if they had a crisis intervention team they could send, to which the operator responded yes.
When asked by the operator for Max’s diagnosis, Michael Mitnik said, “I believe schizophrenia. My wife says schizoaffective disorder.”
Schizoaffective disorder is a mental health condition often characterized by symptoms of schizophrenia, like hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, like mania and depression, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In response to the operator asking if anyone was injured, Michael Mitnik replied, “No. No, we’re fine.” He also said Max didn’t have any weapons.
Michael Mitnik said he and his wife Wanda had been in a similar situation with their son before, at which time they’d taken him to the hospital.
“But this time he won’t … You know, he’s asking for help, so…” Michael Mitnik said. “He hasn’t really been eating or sleeping for the past couple days or more.”
“He’s quite spaced out, kinda,” Mitnik said.
As the officers arrived, Mitnik said to the operator, “I don’t know if they have medications that they’re allowed to give? Are they like an EMS (emergency medical services) unit?”
“I don’t think so, no. I did request for them to send one of the CIT (crisis intervention team) units out. I’m not sure if these officers have that ability, though,” the operator said.
The police response
Body camera footage shows Officer Jose Ruiz and Officer A. Eylicio — neither of whom were wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 — arriving at the Tanoan home. They talked with Max Mitnik and his parents in front of their house about the long wait times at the hospital he wanted to be taken to.
Michael Mitnik said his son had negative experiences at another local hospital. The officers agreed to take Max Mitnik to the hospital he originally requested.
As he was checked by Officer Eylicio for weapons, Mitnik said to his father, “Dad, I love you and Mom.”
“Yeah, we love you, Max. We’re gonna come down there,” Michael Mitnik replied. “We will be there in just a few minutes.”
The officers then began cuffing Mitnik’s hands behind his back without warning — a choice that visibly upset Mitnik. With the cuffs already around one of his hands, he asked the officers to stop handcuffing him.
“I don’t want to do handcuffs, actually. Please stop … This is not fair,” Mitnik said.
The officers explained that they were handcuffing him because it’s department policy to do so when anyone is transported in the back of a police car and that he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Officer Eylicio said, “It doesn’t mean that you’re in trouble, but we could get in trouble…”
Officer Ruiz interrupted Eylicio — the video shows her looking at Ruiz in consternation — and said to Mitnik, “If you don’t want to go with us, why don’t you go with your parents?”
Mitnik agreed he would rather go with his parents, to which Ruiz responded by uncuffing his hands. As Mitnik paced up and down the sidewalk, the two officers argued about how the encounter had unfolded.
“I’m not going to force anything. If he doesn’t want to go with us, he doesn’t want to go with us,” Eylicio said.
Within earshot of Mitnik, she went on, “When he’s being (unintelligible), I’m not going to spend time standing here.”
Ruiz said he would take Mitnik to the hospital.
“He seems okay with me, so I’ll take him, all right? I don’t want him getting all, you know, hyped up with you,” Ruiz said as Mitnik stood close by.
Mitnik walked toward Ruiz and said, “Let’s do the handcuffs.”
Instead of handcuffing him, Ruiz said, “Max. Max. In the past…”
Eylicio said, “So he wants to do the handcuffs.”
“Hang on, hang on,” Ruiz said. Speaking to Max, he continued, “In the past, when you’ve been taken to a hospital with us, you’ve been in handcuffs, right?”
Michael Mitnik interrupted to add that he and his wife had taken their son to the hospital in the past and that he’d never been taken by APD.
When Michael Mitnik again offered to take his son to the hospital, Max Mitnik asked his father if he could stay at the house, to which his father said he couldn’t.
“Max, let’s make a decision, okay?” Ruiz said.
“No, I want to stay here now. I’m not going to be violent, I promise,” Mitnik said.
Eventually, Mitnik agreed to be handcuffed. The officers started walking with him to the police car until he again decided that he didn’t want to go.
“What happens if I get violent there? At the mental hospital. Are they going to hurt me or…?” Max Mitnik asked.
Mitnik walked back to the house after having the handcuffs removed, with his mother following him. The officers talked with his father, who said he understood the police couldn’t force him to go but that he couldn’t stay at their house.
“It’s your house. If you don’t want him to stay here, you can force him not to stay here,” Ruiz said.
“I will not do that to him … I don’t know what to do,” Michael Mitnik said.
As the officers and Michael Mitnik talked, Wanda Mitnik started yelling from inside the house. The group ran inside, where they found Wanda Mitnik standing in front of a closed door.
“Did you see anything?” Ruiz asked.
“Yeah, he’s got a knife in his hand and he’s stabbing at his neck,” Wanda Mitnik said.
Max Mitnik then walked out of the room, advancing towards Ruiz.
“I’m going to suffer a lot if I don’t kill myself. Will you please kill me, sir? Kill me,” Mitnik — who had blood running down his neck — said as Ruiz backed into another room across the hallway.
Ruiz then fired two shots at Mitnik, who fell to the ground as his parents rounded the corner.
“Did you really? Did you really?” Wanda Mitnik asked. “Why did you do that?”
As the Mitniks rendered aid and Ruiz called in the shooting, Officer Eylicio came into the room and said, “Everyone back out, back out. Back up, please.”
“No, this is my son,” Michael Mitnik said.
“Why did you shoot him?” Wanda Mitnik said.
Eylicio helped Wanda Mitnik render aid as Michael Mitnik took a seat on the nearby bed, seemingly in shock.
Ruiz handed Eylicio a knife.
“He had it with him, on the right hand,” Ruiz said.
“We asked for help,” Michael Mitnik said, his voice wavering. “Where did you shoot him … back of the head?”
“No, he was coming towards me, so I don’t think it’s the back of the head,” Ruiz said.
“He asked you to kill him,” Michael Mitnik said, who briefly dropped to the ground next to his son before getting up and leaving the room.
As ambulance sirens rang out in the background, Eylicio said over the radio that Max Mitnik was breathing but unconscious. A number of other officers arrived on the scene, several of whom escorted Ruiz out of the house.
A supervising officer told Ruiz to leave his body camera on as he asked him a series of questions.
“Do you know of anybody who was injured at that location, just the subject…?” the officer asked.
“Just the subject that was … shot,” Ruiz said.
After Ruiz answered a few more questions, the officer said, “I’m glad you’re okay,” all while Max Mitnik was presumably treated by medical responders who would eventually transport him to the hospital.
The Daily Lobo spoke with Dr. Michael Anestis, executive director of the Center on Gun Violence Research and associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, who has studied multiple topics in the field of clinical psychology, including suicide in people with psychiatric disorders. Anestis said that from the beginning, the situation should’ve been handled differently.
When asked how trained mental health professionals would have approached the situation compared to police officers, Anestis said, “They (police) are there to manage a variety of situations, but a lot of which are sort of centered around the prevention of crime, and that’s a different goal.”
“Folks whose jobs have been thousands of hours training and working with individuals with severe mental illness — and how to help them feel calmer, safer and what to say and how to say it, how to explain what their options are — it’s going to make it different, and they’re also going to come into this without handcuffs and without a police uniform,” Anestis said.
Anestis also responded to the notion that sending unarmed mental health professionals to these types of calls instead of police officers would be putting those professionals in danger.
“Mental health professionals work with floridly psychotic folks all the time,” Anestis said. “So what constitutes danger? It sounds like he (Mitnik) was unarmed in the front yard when they started handcuffing him. That wasn’t danger, that was a confused individual. Did he have a knife later? Yes, in response to what was happening.”
He added, “If there’s an active shooting, should you call the psychologist? No, of course not. That’s not what they’re trained to do … but their thousands and thousands of hours of training are in managing folks in crisis and identifying what exactly the nature of that crisis is and what can be done to help them get through it safely.”
Anestis then explained how people with behavioral health disorders are stigmatized.
“What’s frustrating is when we equate severe mental illness with danger,” Anestis said. “When someone acts in a way that feels erratic and different and scary, it doesn’t mean they’re dangerous. A person who is psychotic is more scared than you. They are living in a confusing, fearful moment.”
“Yes, fear can generate danger, but how we respond to that fear is largely what influences how dangerous something becomes,” Anestis said. “And folks with psychotic disorders are far more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be violent. You don’t need to traumatize them further — you need to help them feel calm, feel connected through that crisis moment so that they can continue to live.”
The Daily Lobo reached out to multiple UNM Health Sciences Center psychiatry professors for comment but got redirected to UNMH spokesperson Mark Rudi due to the gag order on employee communications with the media. Rudi said they weren’t able to provide comment.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced plans last month to establish a community safety department, which would see unarmed, trained professionals respond to mental health and homelessness calls instead of the police. It’s unclear if Michael Mitnik’s call would’ve been handled by this new department if it currently existed, according to APD.
APD released the body camera footage and a video presentation last Friday going over the details of the shooting, which is under investigation.
Lieutenant Scott Norris with the Violent Crime Section gave the presentation, with a warning before he began.
“The images and information you are about to see may be disturbing,” Norris said. “When a police officer uses force to arrest a suspect and defend against an attack, it can be graphic and difficult to watch.”
Max Mitnik — who has no criminal history — was not a suspect in any crime, and Officers Ruiz and Eylicio were not attempting to arrest him for any crime before Officer Ruiz shot him.
Ruiz has been an APD officer for 13 years and has no prior “officer-involved shootings.”
Norris said Ruiz shot Mitnik because he “felt he was going to be cut; furthermore, he thought he was going to be killed.” He shot Mitnik twice, on the right hip and on the right side of his head.
Norris said Ruiz had a Taser with him at the time of the shooting. It’s unclear why Ruiz didn’t use less lethal force.
Ruiz claims Mitnik had a knife when he advanced toward him. Based on an APD photo, it was a roughly 3.5-inch-long paring knife.
“I don’t understand why the officer’s first reaction was to shoot Max,” the Mitnik family’s lawyer Ryan Villa told the Albuquerque Journal. “Max hadn’t threatened anybody, he hadn’t acted violently toward anybody, he clearly was in a mental health crisis and self-harming. In the video, he’s asking for the officer to kill him, but he’s doing it in a way that’s about as subdued and calm as you could do it.”
As of last week, Ruiz is expected to resume his regular position after returning from the standard paid administrative leave, according to Norris.
This is the fourth time this year that an APD officer has shot someone.
Officer Edgar Sandoval shot and killed 52-year-old Valente-Acosta Bustillos in his home during a welfare check in late March. A lawsuit filed by his family alleges Sandoval and the other responding officer, Joseph Bush, were aware that Acosta-Bustillos struggled with mental and behavioral health issues.
Two APD officers shot and killed 28-year-old Orlando Abeyta, who according to police was threatening people at a bus stop with what turned out to be a BB gun. Weeks later, officers shot and injured 32-year-old Daniel Montoya, who they say shot at a house and then at officers.
From 2013 to 2019, APD killed at least 32 people, the 15th-most of any police in the country during that same time.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bladvs