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Officer at Torres trial talks about mental illness

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Christopher Torres, fatally shot in 2011 by police who jumped a fence to arrest him in his backyard, had told an officer several months earlier that there were satellites everywhere after an incident in which he claimed to be a federal agent and attacked a patron with a gun at a Garcia’s restaurant.

Xavier Lopez, an Albuquerque Police Department detective trained in dealing with mental illness, said he learned Torres disarmed the customer, removed the firearm’s magazine and gave it restaurant management.

Torres was charged with public affray, battery, disorderly conduct and impersonating a law enforcement officer in that case, but was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation before being booked.

Lopez was contacted about doing follow-up, which he said is part of his job as a member of the Crisis Intervention Team and a negotiator in hostage and suicide situations.

Lopez was called to testify by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by Torres’ family alleging negligent hiring, training and supervision, among other claims. The bench trial is before 2nd District Judge Shannon Bacon.

Torres, 27, had a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia but was in treatment, taking his medications — although with some lapses — and living with his parents.

Lopez investigated, speaking with Torres’ grandmother and father and checking on his criminal history. He learned competency had been raised as an issue after the restaurant encounter, but he decided not to create a “hazard file” police keep for persons with mental illnesses deemed to be a threat.

“I thought he was in good hands,” Lopez said. He said the mere fact that someone has a mental illness does not mean such a file is created.

The information he’d gleaned in his investigation about Torres, Lopez said, would have been available to other officers who’d asked about it.

Lopez told defense attorney Luis Robles in cross-examination about crisis intervention training offered as a 40-hour block to field officers, but he said he’s not sure it always helps. Some officers are naturally calm and good at communicating, and others struggle to learn those skills, he said.

Police rules say officers who know they are going to be involved with a subject who has or is suspected of having mental illness must have backup, which means there should be at least two officers, Lopez said. They also must try to obtain information from family or friends beforehand. Field officers can request assistance from someone with crisis intervention training, Lopez said.

Answering questions from family lawyer Kathy Love, Lopez said he did not always believe having a crisis intervention officer involved was better.

“You understand that someone feeling threatened who is being yelled at and feeling trapped, that can be upsetting?” she asked.

“It could be,” Lopez said.

Love asked about the press conference that then-APD Chief Ray Schultz held after the shooting, during which he described Torres as someone with “an extensive criminal background.”

“Would you disagree” with the characterization? Love asked.

“I would,” he said.

 

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