Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
In late May, after George Floyd took his last breath as a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee on his neck, millions were spurred to march in protest.
Floyd’s death and the shocking video that captured it have reignited talk of police reform across the country. Congress has proposed legislation aimed at curbing excessive use of force and racial discrimination by police and making it easier to identify, track and prosecute misconduct.
In New Mexico alone, at least three men have been killed by police using forceful restraint over the past year and a half.
In February 2019, Vicente Villela died in the custody of the Metropolitan Detention Center after as many as 11 correctional officers held him in a prone restraint and another knelt on his back. In June 2019, Rodney Lynch died after a Gallup Police Department public service officer applied pressure to his neck while trying to restrain him. And in February, Antonio Valenzuela was killed in Las Cruces when a police officer used a “vascular neck restraint” on him. All three incidents were caught on camera. But the aftermaths vary widely.
Professor Keith Taylor with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York said such incidents differ from police shootings, because in most cases death is an unintended consequence.
“Without knowing anything about the specific factors of each case, I think it would be fair to say that was not the intention of the individual involved to actually kill the individual in their custody,” Taylor said. “That being said, obviously the force that was used was too much, or perhaps not appropriately applied, and ended up resulting in the individual’s death. That’s the thing that has to be avoided.”
However, he said, it is impossible to know how often such cases occur. Taylor, a former officer with the New York Police Department, said although the Department of Justice has tasked the FBI with publishing data annually on excessive use of force from police departments, municipalities are not required to report their statistics, meaning instances are severely undercounted.
In New Mexico, as demonstrators call for reform in cities large and small, local officials are starting to take notice and revisit their own cases.
The state Attorney General’s Office is now reviewing the deaths of Villela and Lynch for possible charges and pushing lawmakers to create uniform policies on use of force. The officer involved in Valenzuela’s death has been relieved of his duties and is charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Both 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez, and AG Hector Balderas say they are urging changes to the process surrounding review and prosecution of cases of excessive use of force.
Torrez said he wants the New Mexico Legislature to fund an independent investigations bureau within the District Attorney’s Office so he won’t have to rely on unpredictable funding to contract with special prosecutors.
Balderas said last week that he is asking the Legislature to mandate a process statewide to ensure uniform, timely and transparent review by prosecutors and require law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
Vicente Villela, 37
On Feb. 2, 2019, Vicente Villela, struggled for air, saying “I can’t breathe” and “He’s going to kill me” while as many as 11 correctional officers held him down in a cell at the county jail.
Villela, a father of two with a third on the way, was arrested earlier that day by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office after a woman reported he broke into her home, stole her keys and crashed her car in the backyard. Deputies found him lying on his back next to the car.
When Villela was taken to jail, staff said, he was disoriented, hallucinating and appeared to be under the influence of methamphetamine. When correctional officers tried to move him to a cell, he resisted and began to struggle. From there the entire encounter was recorded by a handheld camera.
The video shows several officers wearing tactical gear pinning Villela down in a prone position as he yells for help. According to a lawsuit filed in the case, Lt. Keith Brandon ordered another officer, Jonathan Sandoval, to “Get on top of him. Sit on him!” and Sandoval complied, pushing his knee and all of his weight into Villela’s back.
Jail policies warn of the danger of asphyxia during prone restraints and say the minimum number of staff should hold an inmate like this for the least amount of time necessary.
After several minutes, Villela died. An autopsy report lists his cause of death as “mechanical asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” It was determined to be a homicide.
The incident didn’t come to light until more than three months later, when Villela’s family began publicly demanding answers.
Matthew Vance, the attorney representing Villela’s family, said that when he first saw the video of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, he was struck immediately by the similarities.
“When the news story broke, I couldn’t help but think of Vicente and what happened to him,” Vance said. “It’s almost that surreal feeling all over again of seeing the video and watching someone die and how terrible that is.”
Vance has filed a federal lawsuit alleging deprivation of civil rights and wrongful death against Bernalillo County commissioners and correctional officers Keith Brandon, Johnathon Sandoval, David Hunter, Seth Romero, Jesse Thompson, Levi Caizza, Shawn Addy, Centurion Detention Health Services and two unnamed medical staff.
Attorneys for the correctional officers did not respond to requests for comment.
Vance said the suit has been held up by procedural delays.
In the meantime, he said, the family continues to hope for justice.
It doesn’t appear as though the officers involved have faced many consequences.
Tia Bland, a Bernalillo County spokeswoman, said that both Lt. Brandon and correctional officer Sandoval are still with MDC, as are all but two of the others who were directly involved.
Bland said two of the remaining officers have been reassigned so they won’t have contact with inmates, but she would not identify them, saying it’s “a safety risk for them and families.”
“Internal Investigation was initiated prior to the new chief coming on board,” Bland wrote in an email. “MDC Chief Greg Richardson is reviewing the investigation and has additional questions and concerns that need to be addressed prior to making a determination regarding discipline.”
The case still hasn’t been reviewed by prosecutors for possible criminal charges.
It was referred to the District Attorney’s Office more than a year ago, but last week – on the same day the Journal asked about the status of the case – DA Torrez sent a letter to Attorney General Balderas asking whether his office could take the case instead due to a conflict of interest and high number of other cases already assigned to special prosecutors.
Balderas’ spokesman, Matt Baca, confirmed they have the case now.
“It is very concerning that this case has been left to sit for a year, so we are reviewing both the case and the cause of the delay,” Baca said in an email.
Rodney Lynch, 41
On June 28, 2019, Rodney Lynch died in front of the local detox center as two public service officers with the Gallup Police Department restrained him in a prone position. One applied pressure to Lynch’s neck while his body weight was on top of him.
After a minute and 20 seconds, Lynch became unconscious. He was taken to a hospital, where he died.
Lynch, a husband and father of four daughters, worked for the Navajo Nation as a weights and measure inspector and loved to travel and be outdoors and play card games and video games with his family. On that day in June, public service officers were called to the JCPenney store at the mall because he was intoxicated and disorderly, according to a spokesman with the New Mexico State Police.
The officers took him to the Na’nizhoozhi Center Inc. detox center, and he “struck one of the officers and again became combative,” according to police.
Then, according to an autopsy report from the Office of the Medical Investigator, Lynch was “restrained by two officers in the prone position; one officer appeared to have applied pressure to the decedent’s neck with his forearm and placed his body weight on the decedent. A second officer restrained the decedent’s legs. After approximately one minute and twenty seconds of being restrained, the decedent became unconscious.”
Lynch’s cause of death was “complications of physical restraint.” The manner of death is homicide.
The incident was captured on video at the detox center, according to Capt. Erin Toadlena-Pablo, a spokeswoman with the Gallup Police Department. She said that officers and public service officers – who don’t carry firearms and are a step down from officers – are all equipped with audio recorders and that their vehicles have dashboard cameras.
Toadlena-Pablo said public service officer Justin Olvera, who had been with the department since November 2015, was immediately put on administrative leave. She said he was fired in November 2019 after an internal affairs investigation. Olvera could not be reached for comment.
Toadlena-Pablo said that after Lynch’s death, the Gallup Police Department made several policy changes, including requiring a public service officer to call a uniformed officer if a person being taken to the detox center is disorderly, aggressive or potentially violent. The department also increased the training public service officers must undergo on use of force.
But Bill Keeler, an attorney representing Lynch’s family, was unconvinced. He said he’s getting ready to file a lawsuit.
The Attorney General’s Office announced last week that it will begin looking into Lynch’s death, saying it is doing so at the request of his family. Keeler said he was frustrated by the time it took for the case to get to the AG after the 11th Judicial District Attorney’s Office determined it had a conflict of interest. He said he ended up handing over the files himself in early March, and then the COVID-19 pandemic delayed proceedings further.
District Attorney Paula Pakkala said the delays were a result of a mix-up in communication getting evidence to the Attorney General’s prosecutors after her office determined it could not take the case due to its close ties with the Gallup Police Department.
“I can confirm that we are investigating the case and why these cases are languishing in local prosecutors’ offices for months or years before the DA decides they have a conflict,” Baca, the AG’s spokesman, wrote in an email.
Antonio Valenzuela, 40
In contrast to the other two cases, the most recent death has already resulted in an officer receiving a letter of intent to terminate employment and facing charges.
Police say on Feb. 29, 2020 officer Christopher Smelser attempted to use a “vascular neck restraint” on Antonio Valenzuela after he fled from a traffic stop and ended up fracturing the cartilage in Valenzuela’s neck.
The Office of the Medical Investigator determined that Valenzuela’s cause of death was “asphyxial injuries due to physical restraint” and that the manner was homicide.
Smelser, who has been with the Las Cruces Police Department since March 2016, was put on administrative leave right after the incident and was handed a letter of intent to terminate following the receipt of the autopsy report, according to a department spokesman. He has also been charged with involuntary manslaughter.
According to the police, Smelser had pulled over a car, and Valenzuela, a passenger, ran. When Smelser caught up with him, an altercation ensued.
In lapel camera video obtained by the Las Cruces Sun-News, Smelser can be heard saying, “I’m going to f*** choke you out, bro” as Valenzuela struggles to get free. After about two minutes, Valenzuela became unconscious. He died at the scene.
Smelser was charged on June 5. He was released on his own recognizance.
His attorney, Amy Orlando, said in a statement that the circumstances in her client’s case are very different from those surrounding the death of Floyd in Minneapolis. She said the vascular neck restraint Smelser used was sanctioned by the Police Department.
“He received training on the maneuver during his academy and received mandatory refresher training and utilized the maneuver in accordance with the policies of the Las Cruces Police Department,” Orlando wrote in a statement. “Officer Smelser regrets the outcome of the incident however, Mr. Valenzuela had a felony warrant, ran from the police, was under the influence of drugs, had drugs on his person, had a weapon, actively resisted, was reaching for another officer’s taser, and violently fought the officers.”
Dan Trujillo, a spokesman for the Las Cruces Police Department, said that immediately after Valenzuela’s death, the department prohibited the use of vascular neck restraints.
Sam Bregman, an attorney representing the family, said he is glad there is a spotlight on use of force right now but he sees Smelser’s involuntary manslaughter charge – and the maximum penalty up to 18 months in prison – as too little.
Valenzuela “had four adult children,” Bregman said. “His life’s work was a mechanic. He was adored by his family, and it was a tragic loss.”
He said that he has been talking with the Las Cruces Police Department about changes to policies and that if they are not implemented, he will file a lawsuit.
“Let’s not forget – this police officer murdered Antonio,” Bregman said. “And it took them three months to fire him and they have charged him with a slap on the wrist. There is still so much change that needs to happen. And I wouldn’t even say this is a step in the right direction, because you can’t watch that video and not be horrified.”