ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hilda Valdez called 911 in November 2010, hoping Albuquerque police officers could help calm down her mentally disabled brother-in-law, who had been drinking and was threatening to harm himself with a knife.
It’s a decision she says she regrets.
Within a few minutes of officers arriving, Russell Tenorio had been shot in his home by APD officer Brian Pitzer, who had announced before entering the residence that he was “going lethal.” Immediately after the bullet struck Tenorio, he was Tasered by officer Doug Moore.
Pitzer and another officer entered the home with their firearms drawn, while Moore was carrying a Taser, and a fourth officer was carrying a bean-bag shotgun.
Tenorio survived but lost a kidney and part of his intestines. Upon being released from the hospital, he was arrested on various charges, including assault on a police officer. Those charges were dismissed.
Valdez, who called for help, and two more family members were detained for hours in the back of squad cars, and their requests to use the bathroom and for an inhaler were denied.
Pitzer later said the confrontation in the home was the most fearful moment of his career. He said Tenorio was walking toward him, with blank look on his face, carrying a knife and ignoring commands to drop it.
Pitzer, who said he waited as long as he could for the other officer to fire his Taser before shooting Tenorio, was cleared by a special grand jury run by the office of District Attorney Kari Brandenburg.
Attorneys for Tenorio, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, said events unfolded so quickly that he didn’t comprehend, or have time to comply with, officers’ shouted, conflicting commands. Last week, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging, among other things, that APD used excessive force.
His lawsuit names Pitzer, Police Chief Ray Schultz and the city of Albuquerque and seeks unspecified damages. It is the second lawsuit against APD to come out of the incident.
Last November, Valdez and the other two family members who witnessed the shooting sued the city in federal court for civil rights violations including unlawful detention. Without admitting liability, the city settled the case for $275,000.
The Journal sent several questions about the lawsuits to Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy last week, but she did not answer them.
Stephanie Griffin of the City Attorney’s Office sent a brief statement about the case:
” … We will review the lawsuit once it is served and file an answer to the allegations contained in the complaint … I anticipate presenting all of the facts and circumstances involved in the shooting to a jury so that this case can be decided fairly and justly.”
The incident was caught on officers’ belt tapes, which have been obtained by the Journal. The recordings show an event that escalated in a matter of seconds.
Officer Brian Pitzer and three other officers met Valdez outside Tenorio’s home in the 1400 block of Alamo SE. She told them that Tenorio, who had consumed several beers that day, had a knife and was inside with two family members who were trying to calm him down. Tenorio had threatened to harm himself, but not anyone else.
After a brief conversation, the officers ordered Valdez to step aside and, before they entered the home or saw Tenorio, Pitzer announced: “I’m going lethal.” In addition to his Springfield .40 caliber handgun, Pitzer also had a Taser with him.
Once inside, the officers ordered Tenorio’s wife out of the kitchen, and she complied, according to the belt recordings.
Tenorio then appeared in the kitchen entryway with the kinfe at his side, according to statements the officers made to investigators.
Officers yelled numerous commands at Tenorio, including orders to drop the knife, get out of the kitchen and get on the ground. Three seconds after the commands began, a shot from Pitzer’s gun can be heard on the recordings. Immediately thereafter, the sounds of officer Doug Moore’s Taser can be heard.
In the days after the shooting, top police officials praised the officers’ actions, saying they handled the situation by the book after Tenorio “lunged” at them with a knife. APD has continued to assert as recently as this year that he “lunged” at officers.
However, according to transcripts of the four officers’ interviews with investigators, none of them said Tenorio lunged at them. Nor had he raised the three-inch paring knife, according to the transcripts.
But Pitzer told investigators that Tenorio was moving toward the officers. He said he feared Tenorio was going to stab him or someone else in the house.
The day Tenorio was released from the hospital on Dec. 17, 2010, he was arrested by APD officers, indicted by a grand jury on four felony counts of aggravated assault on a police officer and one count of resisting, evading or obstructing a police officer, according to court records and the lawsuit.
He spent 13 days in jail before posting a $50,000 bond. In March of this year, a state District judge dismissed the charges because prosecutors had given improper instructions to the grand jury, according to court records and the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, a different grand jury — one without the power to indict — ruled the same way all of its predecessors have in Albuquerque police shootings since 1988: that Pitzer’s shooting of Tenorio was justified.
The special grand jury reviews of police shootings have been halted by state District Court, but Brandenburg is pushing to renew them.
As of mid-April, APD’s Internal Affairs unit had not determined whether the shooting followed department policies. An update on the IA case was among the inquiries made to Levy.
Officers Moore and Robert Liccione were dispatched to Tenorio’s home after Valdez called 911. Pitzer and officer Francisco Hernandez heard the callout over the police radio and decided to assist.
As they approached the home, Hernandez armed himself with a shotgun that fires bean-bag rounds, and Moore chose a Taser, the officers said in their statements.
That left “me and officer Pitzer with our handguns as the lethal-cover option,” according to Liccione’s statement to investigators.
The officers met Valdez in front of the home. She described the inside of the residence for them and said Tenorio had a knife. After Pitzer said, “I’m going lethal,” Valdez tried to follow them inside.
When a group of APD officers encounters someone with an edged weapon, they approach with a variety of options, including non-lethal tools, such as Tasers. And as Pitzer said in his statement to investigators, at least one officer will approach with a “lethal setup” in case the situation deteriorates.
The officers entered the Tenorios’ home in a “stack formation,” with Pitzer in front, Moore next, then Liccione and Hernandez at the rear, according to the statements.
The four officers’ accounts of how far Tenorio was from Pitzer at the time of the shooting varied from “three to five feet” to “no more than an arm length” to “less than 10 feet.”
Before he entered the home, Pitzer felt “uneasy” about the situation, partly because there was no screaming or noise of any kind, according to the statement he gave investigators. Pitzer called it “the most fearful moment” in his career.
He told investigators that he told Tenorio to drop the knife “quite a few times.”
“And he kept walking towards me,” Pitzer told investigators. “And he had this glazed look over his face, and he was like looking through me. And I’m normally very in control of situations, but at this point I felt in total fear.
“Like I didn’t know if he was going to stab me or stab another officer or that female. Just the way he was looking, and the way he was holding the knife in his hand. And he just kept coming at — I waited for officer Moore, who was behind me, for the Taser, and it just wasn’t happening. And I waited and I waited, and it was just too late and I — I fired a round.” After Tenorio was shot, Liccione “picked him up by his right arm and dragged him forcefully and flipped him onto his stomach and handcuffed him,” the officer told investigators.
Hernandez handcuffed Tenorio’s brother-in-law and escorted him out of the house. He, Michaele Tenorio and Valdez were placed into the back of separate police cars.
During her detention, Valdez urinated on herself, because officers wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom, according to her lawsuit. And Michaele Tenorio had an asthma attack after officers wouldn’t allow her to get her inhaler.
It was Pitzer’s second shooting in the five-plus years he’s been with APD.
In November 2009, Pitzer and Hernandez — the same officer who was on the Tenorio call with him — responded to a “loud altercation” at a notorious Albuquerque apartment complex, police said at the time. The officers were met by one man wielding a sledgehammer and another with a knife, police said at the time. Pitzer and Hernandez opened fire, wounding both men.
APD under scrutiny
APD officers have shot at 26 men since 2010, striking 24 and killing 17. Tenorio was the last of 14 men shot by officers in 2010.
The shootings and other use of force incidents have led to a U.S. Justice Department investigation of APD. Federal investigators aim to determine whether a culture exists within APD that leads to officers using excessive force.
Tenorio’s lawsuit says the November 2010 shooting unfolded rapidly and alleges that, as a result of the high-speed nature of the incident, he didn’t have time to comprehend officers’ conflicting commands to drop the knife, get on the floor and get out of the kitchen.
Prior to federal officials announcement of their investigation last month, Chief Schultz had already implemented a number of policy changes at APD to address various aspects of the way his officers use force. Among them was a requirement that supervisors respond to all scenes that have a high probability to become volatile. The intent behind the change was to slow down fast-moving situations that could result in the use of deadly force.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal