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Did investigation of APD shooting fall short?

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Even in the immediate aftermath of his death on April 12, 2011, the Albuquerque Police Department was cutting no slack to Christopher Torres, a 27-year-old with schizophrenia shot to death when officers went to the backyard of the family home to serve a warrant.

While the Office of the Medical Investigator called the manner of death a homicide – without weighing in on whether it was justified or not – the lead detective looking into the fatal shooting wrote in her report that the offense she was investigating was “Aggravated Assault on an Officer.”

When officer Paige Lavilla submitted her report a month or so after the shooting, a police canvass of the Torres family’s pleasant neighborhood had failed to turn up the sole eyewitness to the event, and Lavilla acknowledged that the witness information would have been something she would have wanted to have.

Her notes going into the investigation listed pertinent questions – some of them questions that Torres family attorneys have raised in the civil lawsuit over Torres’ death against APD and the city.

“Less than lethal?” was one question, about whether officers had attempted to use less than lethal force.

“How dressed?” was another. Officers Richard Hilger and Chris Brown were both in jeans and T-shirts pulled out over the guns they carried.

“Lapel camera?” was another, but both officers said they did not have one with them at the time.

Attorney Randi McGinn suggested in her questioning of Lavilla that the shooting was investigated very differently than any other homicide, including waiting until the following day to question the shooter, Brown.

The interviews with the officers weren’t videotaped, Lavilla agreed. And although she investigated Torres’ background, the officer said she had not looked into Brown’s. The lawsuit alleges that APD had abandoned many of its earlier hiring standards, including background checks, and that a more thorough investigation would have turned up citizen complaints against Brown in Roswell, including pulling a gun during two traffic stops.

Earlier Wednesday, Xavier Lopez, an APD detective trained in dealing with mental illness, testified about a prior encounter that Torres had with police.

Several months before the fatal encounter at his home, Torres was arrested for attacking an armed man at a Garcia’s restaurant. During that encounter, Torres claimed to be a federal agent and rambled on about satellites.

Torres was charged in the incident but 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. He testified that he spoke with Torres’ grandmother and father and checked 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 people with mental illnesses deemed to be a threat. Torres was in treatment, taking his medications – although with some lapses – and living with his parents.

“I thought he was in good hands,” Lopez said.

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.

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