Father killed by APD part of a long history of deadly wellness checks

At vigil, survivors grieve and seek change

By: - April 1, 2022 1:09 pm

Surviving members of Valente Acosta-Bustillos’ family embrace during a vigil on Wednesday. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

As Valente Acosta-Bustillos’ family gathered near the site of his death to remember his life, advocates joined in solidarity, pointing to a history of wellness checks by Albuquerque police that turn deadly.

One of his sons, Valente Acosta, usually doesn’t speak to anyone or put himself out there, he said, fending off being exposed “to remembering what they did to my father.”

The permanent descanso built for Valente Acosta-Bustillos. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

“Because it brings me pain every day,” he said. “I don’t like to cry. It’s not something I do.”

On Wednesday evening, heartbreak crossed Acosta’ face before he shared it in his words.

He walked back and forth around the descanso built for his dad at the corner of Edith Boulevard and Cromwell Avenue, feet away from the house where two Albuquerque police officers killed his father in March 2020.

Acosta put his hands up to his temples, looking into the distance, his face framed by his beard and baseball cap. As he raised the mic, he called over to his son to hold him while he spoke.

“It’s a false bravado that I tried to do,” he said, “to make it through the day, because at the end of the day, I know my dad’s gone, that I’m not gonna see him no more.”

He said his brothers told him never to cry. But his dad told him just the opposite.

“My dad tells me, ‘it’s OK to cry. You’re a man. You can cry. Just ‘cause you’re a man doesn’t mean you can’t,’” Acosta said. “But he said ‘Look at me. I cry all the time.’ I said ‘Hey, me too, but I’m alone in my room.’”

‘An indescribable grief’

Elaine Maestas, a police accountability strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, also lost a loved one who was experiencing a mental health crisis to police violence.

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies shot Maestas’ sister, Elisha Lucero, 21 times in July 2019, killing her right outside her home. Lucero’s death became one of the driving forces behind the Albuquerque city government forming a new department to respond to some emergency calls without police.

In Acosta-Bustillos’ case, his family had called police for the wellness check, because none of his relatives had heard from him for four or five days, his phone was off, and he had not shown up to work or to pick up his latest paycheck.

Maestas showed up to the vigil on Wednesday to show support for the Valente family and to urge everyone there to pressure lawmakers to fundamentally change the way policing works in New Mexico.

“I just wanted to come out and support the family and offer my condolences because this grief that they’re going through, it’s an indescribable grief. How can you cope with losing a loved one at the hands of somebody that took an oath to protect and serve them?” Maestas asked.

It takes a lot for a family to keep pushing for justice, but it’s necessary, Maestas said.

“Contact your legislators, contact the governor, and let them know that change needs to happen,” Maestas said.

Elaine Maestas spoke on Wednesday evening in support of the family of Valente Acosta-Bustillos. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Maestas said New Mexico has a huge problem with police violence. Since 2015, New Mexico has had the second-highest rate of deadly police shootings, The Guardian reported.

The year before, the U.S. Department of Justice found that APD officers frequently misused Tasers, including in cases where people were “observably nonthreatening but unable to comply with orders due to their mental state.”

“A significant amount of the force we reviewed was used against persons with mental illness and in crisis,” the DOJ wrote.

It found that APD’s policies, training, and supervision fail to make sure that police who encounter people with mental illness or in distress “do so in a manner that respects their rights and is safe for all involved.”

“The use of excessive force by APD officers is not isolated or sporadic,” the investigators wrote. “The pattern or practice of excessive force stems from systemic deficiencies in oversight, training, and policy.”

As part of the settlement agreement that resulted from the DOJ investigation, APD agreed to “minimize the necessity for the use of force against” people in crisis like Lucero and Acosta-Bustillos.

But according to the latest report by the court’s independent monitor from last May, APD has shown a “lack of progress” and still has “a great deal to accomplish” to come into compliance with that part of the settlement.

“Contact all of the elected officials that you can and let them know that we need change, because that’s where it’s gonna start,” Maestas said. “We need these people to be held accountable.”

Maestas said the solution is not going to come from just new policies or more training, but from “actually having something tangible to be able to hold them accountable to those policies and those trainings.”

Acosta-Bustillos wanted to bring a smile to everybody, Acosta said. A neighbor spoke about how Acosta-Bustillos would walk around the neighborhood on stilts.

“He brings a smile on my face every day, because I remember that he’s still here, ‘cause he’s a part of me, and that’s never gonna be taken away from me,” Acosta said. “They took him away, but they can’t take away my dad from me. That’s inside my heart.”

Numerous nieces, nephews, sons and grandchildren spoke about missing Acosta-Bustillos, especially the candies he would make and the food they would give him. One granddaughter said he called himself “the cookie monster.” But many of the young family members struggled to articulate their pain.

“The thing that hurts the most to me is that they took away my nephews’ and nieces’ grandparent,” Acosta said. “They’re so hurt that they’re not able to speak. They know what the police did to my father is wrong, and they’re so hurt, they can’t even put into words what they wanna say. But they know that not saying nothing is just as impactful.”

The house where two APD officers killed Valente Acosta-Bustillos in March 2020. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.