Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The family of a mentally ill woman who was shot to death by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies in front of her home during a misdemeanor battery call last summer has settled its lawsuit with the county for $4 million.
It’s one of the largest settlements involving use of force claims by local law enforcement in recent years.
The settlement agreement was signed Wednesday – less than two months after Elisha Lucero’s sister filed the suit against the Bernalillo County Commission and Sheriff Manuel Gonzales.
“For the family, time has stood still since the death of Elisha, and they’re in the wake of very profound grief and unimaginable pain,” said attorney Shannon Kennedy in a phone interview Friday. “However, in lieu of answering the complaint we filed on behalf of the family, the county reached out to us to enter into a mediation, which we did.”
When asked for comment, BCSO spokesman Deputy Connor Otero said the department was aware the case has settled but is “sickened with the amount of the settlement agreement.”
“The Sheriff’s Department does not admit any fault on behalf of the employees involved and holds firm in its belief that our deputies have a right and a duty to protect themselves and others from harm and/or death,” Otero wrote in an email.
Otero also sent a statement from Sheriff Gonzales which added that the department is committed to protecting children and families, and “as such, we responded legally and appropriately while in communication with the family to protect the welfare of all involved. Our condolences are with the family for their loss.”
Culture of aggression
In July, Lucero was shot to death in front of her RV, which was parked in front of her family’s South Valley home. Deputies had responded to the home after a relative called 911 saying Lucero had hit her uncle in the face. The relative also said Lucero was mentally ill, needed help, and was a threat to herself and to everybody else, according to the 911 call.
Lucero had been exhibiting symptoms of psychosis since she had surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2018, according to the lawsuit.
When deputies arrived they said Lucero initially refused to come out of the home. Then, they said, she ran out screaming and armed with a kitchen knife. According to the suit, the 4-foot-11 Lucero was naked from the waist up at the time.
Lt. Alfonso Rodriguez and deputies Jonathan Aguilar and Ryan Schmidt shot Lucero. She was struck at least 21 times, according to an autopsy report. She died at the scene.
Otero, the BCSO spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether Rodriguez, Aguilar and Schmidt were still in the same positions in the department.
The lawsuit, filed by Lucero’s older sister, Elaine Maestas, on Jan. 13, alleges Sheriff Gonzales has fostered a culture of aggression in the department and too few deputies are trained to handle people with mental health issues.
It states that Lucero had called BCSO and asked to be taken to the hospital for mental health issues just a month prior to the shooting and in the July case deputies should have called the SWAT team or a Mobile Crisis Team trained to handle mental health calls.
Instead, the suit states, “the deputies created a situation where they were forced to use deadly force against Ms. Lucero or have justified their unlawful use of deadly force with the falsehood that Ms. Lucero presented a deadly threat to one or all of them.”
Otero wrote that although BCSO disagrees with the settlement amount, the department knows the process of a civil lawsuit could take years and “many cases are settled out of court as this case was.”
“We are represented by New Mexico Association of Counties and we acknowledge that the decision to settle a case like this is something that they do based upon an extreme number of variables,” Otero wrote.
Although the attorneys representing the New Mexico Association of Counties did not respond to requests for comment, county attorney Ken Martinez said, “I can tell you that the county as an organization is always trying to do the right thing and trying to assess costs early and fairly.”
In comparison, Albuquerque has paid out $5 million to $6 million for it’s most high-profile officer-involvved shootings – including the shooting of James Boyd, Christopher Torres and Mary Hawkes – prior to beginning its reform effort with the Department of Justice.
Recent high-profile shootings by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office have settled for less than $2 million.
Since the shooting, members of Lucero’s family, especially Maestas, have joined the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico in advocating for the Sheriff’s Office to equip its deputies with lapel cameras.
In response to the news that the lawsuit had been settled, Leon Howard, the legal director for the ACLU of New Mexico issued a statement saying the organization will continue to work with Lucero’s family to implement police reforms to prevent needless and preventable deaths.
“No one in Bernalillo County should ever fear that calling emergency services for a loved one in crisis will result in that loved one’s death,” Howard wrote. “Furthermore, we believe it is past time for BCSO and other law enforcement agencies statewide to commit to basic transparency and accountability by outfitting their officers with body worn cameras.”
Otero said Sheriff Gonzales has not changed his opinion on lapel cameras after the incident or the settlement. Gonzales in the past has said his deputies don’t need cameras because they have audio recorders on their belts.
Kennedy said, “We weren’t able to negotiate any changes in policies, but the family is going to continue to work with the ACLU for criminal justice reform. Specifically they’re going to seek to pass statewide legislation to mandate that officers and deputies have body cameras.”
Although last fall the Bernalillo County Commission allocated $1 million in startup money, plus $500,000 in recurring annual funds for the sheriff’s office to get dashboard cameras and lapel cameras, no equipment has been purchased.