SANTA FE — Santa Fe police chose “weapons over words” when its officers killed a mentally ill Santa Fe man during a SWAT situation at an apartment complex in July, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in District Court by the estate of Anthony Benavidez.
The lawsuit alleges that the city has “long failed to adequately hire, train and oversee its officers,” particularly in identifying and interacting with people afflicted by mental illness.
It claims special units such as the SWAT team are deployed “recklessly,” that there’s a disconnect between supervising officers and those in the field, and that officers antagonize mentally disabled suspects instead of getting them the help they need.
“The Chief and his SFPD officers, all called to the scene of Anthony’s apartment, had a duty to provide Anthony with access to adequate mental health medical care as opposed to killing him,” the lawsuit states.
Chief Patrick Gallagher is not named in the lawsuit. SFPD Lt. Ben Valdez, who commanded the tactical unit, and officers Jeremie Bisagna, who fired 16 rounds at Benavidez after police ripped out an apartment window, and Luke Wakefield, who added one more, are mentioned. But only the city of Santa Fe is listed as defendant.
The lawsuit does allege Bisagna tampered with evidence by turning off his body camera moments before he shot Benavidez. There is video of the shooting from the lapel cams of other officers.
The Journal previously reported that Santa Fe police had encountered Benavidez at the same apartment the day before he was killed. The 24-year-old man had broken into the unit at the Tuscany at St. Francis apartments near St. Francis Drive and Siringo Road after being evicted. The complaint notes that SFPD assisted in sending Benavidez to the hospital that day.
But Benavidez returned to the apartment the next day. He stabbed a caseworker who had been called to the scene to help defuse the situation, prompting SFPD to send a SWAT team to the scene.
According to the complaint, four mental health professionals also were on hand with a police crisis team awaiting the arrival of a cellphone to begin negotiations with Benavidez. But “Lt. Valdez rushed to use weapons instead of words.”
The complaint acknowledges that Benavidez threw objects out of his apartment, reported by police as an oxygen or propane tank rigged with fireworks and a bottle of ammonia, both described in police reports as homemade explosives. But the suit says the devices did not present “an immediate deadly threat to anyone” and police responded with excessive and deadly force.
The lawsuit says that state law requires officers to receive 40 hours of crisis negotiation training, but only 67 or 167 Santa Fe police officers have received the training. It asks the court to require all SFPD officers to undergo training to recognize the signs of mental disability and illness and how to communicate effectively with those inflicted, SFPD to develop protocols for its crisis intervention and special operations units, and for the city to provide screening, assessment and intake services within 72 hours of contact with homeless or mentally ill people, among other demands.
It also asks the judge to “enjoin any further violations of state constitutional and statutory rights of those experiencing homelessness and/or mental illness.”
Finally, the lawsuit asks the judge to award compensatory damages to Benavidez’s estate for talleged unlawful battery. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Roseanne Lopez, Benavidez’s sister and the personal representative for his estate, by attorneys with Albuquerque’s Kennedy, Kennedy & Ives law firm, the Buckingham, Barrera law firm of Midland, Texas, and Santa Fe attorney Slate Stern.
The city of Santa Fe did not respond to a request for comment.