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Checkered history casts shadow on APD’s acting chief

Harold Medina became interim chief of the Albuquerque Police Department two weeks ago. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The 14-year-old walked into a Baptist church in Albuquerque with a gun in his hand.

Dominic Montoya claimed he was tormented by demons and that he was at the West Side sanctuary seeking prayer. Three officers found the boy in the hallway and ordered him to show his hands on that September day in 2002. Instead, they say, Montoya spun and leveled a gun at them.

One officer dived for cover but another – now interim police Chief Harold Medina – fired three shots.

Montoya died at a hospital and police discovered the Cibola High freshman had been brandishing a BB gun.

The boy’s mother recently told the Journal it ruined her life.

And, 18 years later, the incident still brings Medina to tears.

“He was my daughter’s classmate … and I’ll always live with that …” Medina said, choking up. “That’s why it’s imperative that you have a chief that knows what people go through on both sides and you know that it’s life-changing and we have to do everything we can, because shootings can be justified but it doesn’t always mean that they’re not tragic.”

Dominic Montoya

Since Medina was named interim chief of the Albuquerque Police Department a little more than two weeks ago, critics, including his former boss, blasted the appointment and pointed to the Montoya shooting and other controversies in Medina’s 25 years in law enforcement as reasons why he shouldn’t be the city’s top cop.

An anonymous letter highlighting his history and addressed to Mayor Tim Keller and Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair, purportedly from a former colleague of Medina, was sent to the Journal and has been circulating on social media.

That history includes the Montoya shooting and Medina’s involvement in the shooting of Kenneth Ellis III in 2010 – a high-profile incident that was pivotal in the Department of Justice investigation into APD and resulted in a nearly $8 million settlement with the city. In addition, in 2018 Medina was sued over his role as interim warden at Laguna Pueblo Detention Facility because one of his correctional officers raped an inmate. And just three months ago, Medina decided against ordering officers to intervene as tensions were rising at a protest for the removal of a Juan De Oñate statue in Downtown Albuquerque – those tensions escalated into a shooting.

Kenneth Ellis Jr., the father of Kenneth Ellis III, holds a photo of his son in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven where Ellis III was shot and killed by Albuquerque police in 2010. Many have criticized Medina’s role as a ranking officer at the scene of the high-profile shooting. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

But Medina said his experiences make him committed to reforming the department.

“That is the biggest thing, looking at these incidents I’ve been involved in and knowing that the direction we’re moving and these changes we’re making could’ve impacted those situations and we could’ve had different outcomes as a department,” Medina said.

He appears to have support from the union. When Medina’s appointment was announced, union president Shaun Willoughby said he is a problem solver and “works his tail off.”

“Harold Medina has a lot of experience, he comes from this community …,” Willoughby said. “It makes sense to us, but we are going to hopefully be involved in the process of our voices being heard in the upcoming national search for police chief.”

The chief job has been posted on the city’s website, and will be sent out nationally to relevant organizations.

But outgoing police Chief Michael Geier, whose last day was Friday, believes Medina is the wrong man for the job.

Mayor Tim Keller talks about legislative funding geared toward fighting crime during a 2018 news conference in Civic Plaza with then-Deputy Chief Harold Medina at his side. Medina has said his lengthy experience as a “street cop” will suit him as chief. (Matthew Reisen/Albuquerque Journal)

“If we’re really going to change the culture, I think Harold is not the best example they could find,” Geier said during a series of interviews last week.

Shannon Kennedy, who represented the Ellis family, echoed that statement, saying Medina’s history with APD makes his new promotion bewildering.

“He was the face of a culture of aggression and failed leadership, prior to the DOJ, (that) led to the loss of human life …,” she said.

When asked if the mayor’s office was aware of these criticisms, chief of staff Mike Puelle wrote in a statement: “Acting Chief Medina has been very open about these lessons learned and how he applies them to the ongoing reform efforts at the department.”

Oñate protest

More recently, over his past several months as deputy chief, Medina has been one of the key players overseeing the department’s response to local protests against racial injustice and police brutality across the nation.

Of the many protests, it’s the June 15 demonstration for the removal of the Oñate statue that has drawn the most fire after a counterprotester shot and seriously injured a protester.

Text messages show that before the shooting Medina and others in the command staff were warned that the heavily-armed New Mexico Civil Guard was there and asked if there was a plan to de-escalate.

Shortly before 6:30 p.m., Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, sent a text to Medina, Geier and another deputy chief, warning that the militia group had shown up.

“This will turn out really bad if those jokers assault the protesters,” Gallegos wrote. “Even the intimidation is troubling. Any ideas about de-escalating and getting them to back down?”

Medina, who was in charge that night, replied: “We are planning it (sic) stay neutral,” adding that if they commit a crime a team would move in and arrest them.

As it turns out, the situation did escalate and a man – armed with a handgun but unaffiliated with the group – got into a confrontation with demonstrators. Steven Ray Baca, 31, shot and seriously injured a protester and has since been charged with aggravated battery with great bodily harm. His lawyer maintains it was self-defense.

APD’s handling of that protest has been heavily criticized from all sides – city councilors called for a public accounting of why the officers didn’t intervene sooner and the 2nd Judicial District Attorney blasted the department for its handling of the shooting investigation.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez insisted the case be taken over by the New Mexico State Police, in part, he said, because officers at the scene had discharged smoke munitions at the crowd, making witnesses reluctant to cooperate and possibly compromising evidence.

Geier says he had told Medina to have uniformed officers – like bicycle cops – at the protest but he said that directive was ignored. Geier said those cops could have helped out and provided a sense of security, and that if they had been there they possibly could have told the armed guard members to back off.

For his part, Medina said he had been told from other police chiefs in the country that having officers in riot gear at the protests could escalate tensions and cause the crowd to turn on them. When asked whether there should have been uniformed officers instead, he said that was a “great question.”

“We’re constantly evolving and changing,” Medina said. “That was one of those defining moments when we realized we have to approach these situations differently.”

But, he said, in comparison to other cities across the country, Albuquerque has handled its protests well.

“We’re never going to be able to satisfy everyone,” he said. “I know we’re going to be Monday morning quarterbacked, but we’ve done this job very well compared to the rest of the nation.”

He said he’s heard the rumors that the mayor or Chief Administrative Officer Nair were calling the shots during the Oñate protest, but says that is not true. He said only two lieutenants were in the command post – the Real Time Crime Center – when the shooting occurred, and everyone arrived afterward. A spokesman for the mayor has since said that he and Nair arrived roughly two hours after the shooting.

“In the conference room on the side (at APD headquarters) there were a number of people that responded there after the fact for logistical reasons, communication strategies,” Medina said. “Gilbert (Gallegos) was there, I was there, the mayor was there, the CAO was there, but at no time were officers interacting with anyone other than myself or DC (Michael) Smathers.”

Demonstrators climb the statue of Juan de Oñate in Old Town as an armed member of the New Mexico Civil Guard stands by during a protest on June 15. Medina was involved in the decisions made by police to not intervene in the tense incident that ended in the shooting of a demonstrator. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

‘Part of the problem’

For the Department of Justice, the 2010 shooting of Ellis – a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran with PTSD who had a gun to his own head in a convenience store parking lot – was a clear example of officers unreasonably using deadly force on a person in crisis who is only a danger to himself.

A 2014 letter laying out the findings from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division investigation into the department, cites the episode, saying “there was never any indication from Ellis’ words or actions that he intended to use the gun on anyone but himself … It was thus unreasonable for the officer to have used deadly force on Ellis. In addition, when officers are dealing with suicidal subjects, their failure to try to de-escalate the situation is a relevant factor in evaluating the reasonableness of any force they might use.”

Bridget Montoya, left, and her daughter Christina Lujan, talk about Dominic Montoya after the 14-year-old was shot by then-officer Harold Medina in 2002. The shooting was brought up among several criticisms leveled at Medina since becoming interim chief. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The incident unfolded on Jan. 13, 2010, when officers stopped Ellis outside a 7-Eleven. Ellis put a gun to his head as police called in reinforcements.

Medina, the ranking officer on scene who was called because the officers requested a rifle, drew his firearm and took aim as other officers surrounded Ellis. After about nine minutes, officer Brett Lampiris-Tremba shot Ellis once in the neck.

According to an interview transcript obtained by the Journal, after the shooting Medina told an investigator he would’ve shot Ellis himself – when the gun left Ellis’ head for “a brief second” – but Medina was in the process of getting up off the ground. Medina told the investigator in the interview that he then explained to a nearby officer that deadly force was authorized if it happened again.

Lampiris-Tremba never mentioned the gun leaving Ellis’ head, but told investigators he fired after Ellis had made a “twitch.”

Ellis’ family sued and after a weeklong trial, a jury blasted Lampiris-Tremba’s actions and found the city was negligent in the way it supervised him. The jury awarded the Ellis family $10.3 million – one of the largest judgments leveled against the department. After an appeal, the city agreed to pay $7.95 million.

The shooting spurred Kenneth Ellis Jr. – Ellis III’s father – to become an advocate for reform. When reached last week, Ellis Jr. said as an old face that predates the DOJ investigation – and the culture of aggression and lack of accountability it uncovered at APD – Medina cannot bring forth the change needed at a department “ingrained in corruption.”

“Medina has been part of the problem and, if you’re part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution,” Ellis Jr. said.

“This will turn out really bad if those jokers assault the protesters,” Gallegos wrote. “Even the intimidation is troubling. Any ideas about de-escalating and getting them to back down?”

Kennedy said Medina “absolutely” could have changed the outcome that day.

“Instead of taking control and becoming one voice and acting as command, he pointed his rifle and took cover and told one man ‘take a shot if Kenneth Ellis moves the gun away from his head …,'” she said. “That shot never should’ve been taken and Harold Medina literally got blood on his boots at that scene. He’s never answered for that failure.”

Medina said he was never investigated in the shooting, or named in the lawsuit.

Former Chief Geier was on the critical incident review board at the time of the shooting, and says he does remember Medina being told he should have de-escalated the situation or pulled some of the officers back.

“They did a good job of securing that area but he sat there with his rifle out, no commands, no direction,” Geier said. “By today’s standards that would be pretty severe leadership failure to de-escalate. You would have been demoted for something like that, if not worse.”

Medina called criticisms of his role in the shooting “unfair” and “half-hearted truths” and said he had gone to the scene because they asked for an officer with a rifle. He also said no policy exists that says a ranking official is automatically in charge of a scene.

“For me, as an investigative lieutenant to go in and tell the field … ‘move over, I’m taking over’ without knowing what they’ve already done, would be irresponsible,” he said. “It would slow down the process and it would slow down our ability to control that.”

But Medina said he learned from the incident and, even before the DOJ investigation, initiated a screening process that SWAT incidents go through supervisors and a scenario shooting program for SWAT officers.

Another criticism leveled at Medina involved the shooting of Andrew Lopez a year and a half earlier.

On Feb. 8, 2009, Medina was off-duty when one of his officers, Justin Montgomery, shot Andrew Lopez, 19, as Lopez fled from a vehicle, according to police. Lopez was wounded, unarmed and lying on his back, when Montgomery fired again and killed him.

The DOJ cited the incident as a case in which officers shot and killed civilians who did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to anyone. Following a lawsuit, 2nd Judicial District Judge Theresa Baca called the officers’ decisions “misjudgments.”

She said the department’s training methods were “designed to result in the unreasonable use of deadly force” and awarded Lopez’s family more than $4.25 million.

Medina readily admits it was not a good outcome but said the blame does not fall on him. He said the incident is on his Internal Affairs investigation log but he doesn’t know why and is looking into it.

“I think it’s a key thing to remember in all these pre-DOJ cases is that a lot of officers followed what they were trained,” Medina said. “Lieutenants, chiefs, they set examples but they don’t control actions of individuals.”

Medina said a new system, established following the DOJ investigation, of having a duty lieutenant always available for critical incidents has prevented further incidents.

Prison rape

Between May 11 and May 23, 2015, while Medina was interim warden, Laguna Pueblo Detention Facility Correctional Officer Trevor Hunt battered and sexually assaulted a female inmate, culminating in a rape in a prison laundry room.

A lawsuit filed in the case alleges that Medina was aware of Hunt’s “known history” of sexually and verbally assaulting inmates, which had been witnessed by other employees prior to the incidents.

Harold Medina, then-Deputy Chief, talks during a press conference following the shooting at the Oñate protest in Old Town. 

Despite that, according to the lawsuit, Medina took no action to ensure the safety of inmates or “appropriately discipline” Hunt.

“As a result of the creation of danger by Defendant Interim Warden Medina, Defendant Hunt sexually assaulted and battered Plaintiff several times from May 11, 2015, to May 23, 2015, and eventually included the rape of (the inmate),” the lawsuit states.

Hunt was sentenced to 30 months in prison after pleading guilty to sexual abuse of a ward and deprivation of rights under color of law.

Medina called the accusations that he had knowledge of Hunt’s misconduct “completely false” and said he was interim only for a short time.

“I was actually out of town when it occurred, I was on vacation,” he said. “We cooperated fully with the FBI, there was a strong criminal investigation – I believe he is serving prison time.”

‘It ruined my life’

When Bridget Montoya heard the officer who shot and killed her 14-year-old son was named interim chief of APD, she said it’s like “ripping the scab off the wound.”

“People think it’s been 18 years, that I should be over it by now, and I’m not,” she told the Journal. “It was so traumatic and so awful what happened – it ruined my life.”

On Sept. 4, 2002, officers were called to Bridget Montoya’s home after she and her daughter fled to a friend’s house – telling a 911 dispatcher that her teenage son had pointed a gun at her.

More 911 calls came in from neighbors who reported that a boy came into their homes and threatened them with a gun. Then, police received another call around 9:15 p.m. from the Taylor Ranch Baptist Church and “a separate team” of three officers, including Medina, was sent there.

The wife of the church’s choir director told reporters that Montoya had shown up with a gun, saying he “was tormented by the devil and demons,” and she offered to pray with him. As the two prayed, the choir director took their children from the church and called 911.

A member of the choir asked Montoya for the gun in his pocket but he refused and left the sanctuary. A police spokesman said officers found him in the main hallway and told Montoya to show his hands.

The spokesman said Montoya pointed his gun at them and Medina fatally shot him.

“My son had just turned 14 years old. He was just a kid,” Bridget Montoya said, adding that she has had to work “very, very hard” to forgive Harold Medina.

“I know that I have to. I can’t live with that bitterness,” she said.

Geier remembers the shooting and said he wouldn’t want to second guess anyone but feels like the utmost goal should be to protect life.

“Just the fact that it’s a young kid, you stay behind cover and you talk …,” Geier said. “I look at it this way, if I had a 14-year-old kid that was troubled I would hope the officers would take more time and have that respect.”

Medina said he is still haunted by the incident.

“This was a young man that had his whole life ahead of him,” he said.

Medina said if officers had the training and tactics they do now they may not have entered that church, and instead would rely on negotiators and a Crisis Intervention Team.

“These are tragedies that a community lives with forever and that’s why we have to do everything we can to make sure that we’re developing policies and procedures which lessen our likelihood of these incidents occurring,” Medina said.

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