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APD officer violated policies in inmate’s suicide

Officer Jonathan Franco directs Robert Lankford to the wall after putting him in a holding cell in the early morning hours of Oct. 30, 2019. Lankford later used the shackles to hang himself. (Courtesy APD)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In the early morning hours of Oct. 30, 2019, an Albuquerque Police Department officer pulled over a gold pickup truck in a neighborhood south of East Central, near Western Skies SE. The truck had been reported stolen and the driver was charged with receiving or transferring a stolen motor vehicle.

The passenger – a neighbor who had asked for a ride to the store to buy milk – was wanted on a warrant and was also taken into custody.

Both men were put in separate holding cells at the Foothill Substation.

That’s where the passenger, 52-year-old Robert Lankford, used a set of shackles to hang himself.

An internal affairs investigation requested by the Journal in June and released last week found the arresting officer, Jonathan Franco, didn’t check on Lankford for over an hour, despite being required to do so every 30 minutes, and then “failed to render any aid, or at minimum (failed) to check for any signs of life” when he entered the cell and found his body. The investigation also showed that Franco submitted a police report with false information about that night.

Following the internal investigation, a recommendation was made by the command staff to terminate Franco. Instead, after a pre-disciplinary hearing, then-police chief Michael Geier imposed a 360-hour suspension, which Franco was allowed to carry out by taking a day or two of unpaid leave each week.

A 2018 picture of Robert Lankford taken at the graduation of his foster brother’s son. (Courtesy Robert Work)

Interim police chief Harold Medina – who stepped in last month after Geier was told to retire – said he strongly disagreed with the decision not to terminate Franco and, if he had been in charge, he would have fired him.

“There are just facts to the case that I didn’t believe were conduit with the direction that we’re trying to take the Albuquerque Police Department, and the trust that we’re trying to build with the community and the compassion that we want to always show our citizens,” Medina said.

He said Franco, a 15-year veteran of APD, is now working as an officer at the airport.

John D’Amato, a lawyer representing Franco, said he thinks even the suspension was too harsh.

He said officers in the field wouldn’t touch a body after being called to a suicide – although he acknowledged it’s a different scenario with an in-custody death – and said it’s unclear if more frequent check-ins could have stopped Lankford from killing himself.

“There were too many unanswered questions in that case to support a termination,” D’Amato said. “And if you take the totality of everything, I still believe the discipline was too harsh.”

In a separate incident several years ago, Franco was mentioned, although not named, as an example of an APD officer using excessive force in a report by the independent monitor overseeing the APD reform effort.

On Oct. 30, 2015 – exactly four years before Lankford’s death – Franco struck a suspected car thief in the head with his knee while he was lying down, rendering him unconscious, according to court documents.

The suspect, Majestic Howard, sued Franco and the city of Albuquerque in federal court. In April, a judge determined that, although the undisputed facts show that Franco violated Howard’s Fourth Amendment rights, he is entitled to qualified immunity.

Louren Oliveros, an attorney representing Howard’s sister and guardian, said the suit was allowed to proceed against the city and, in August, it settled for $42,500.

Misstep after misstep

As part of the internal affairs investigation into Lankford’s suicide, officers watched surveillance video of the holding cell, examined police reports and computer-aided dispatch logs, and interviewed other officers, the driver of the stolen truck and Lankford’s foster brother. They found that after bringing the two suspects to the Foothills Substation on Lomas, just west of Tramway NE, Franco handcuffed Lankford’s hands to a post in the cell at 2:57 a.m. and notified dispatch he had two people in custody. The driver, Shannon Steelman, was held in another cell at the station.

According to the investigation, Franco should have checked on Lankford at 3:28 a.m. and then again a 3:58 a.m. – at which time Lankford had his head through the chain from an extra set of shackles that had been left in the cell.

At 4:01 a.m., Lankford’s body stopped moving and, 11 minutes later, Franco, elsewhere in the station and unaware of Lankford’s actions, submitted a police report on the arrest to the computer system. The report states that Lankford and Steelman “were arrested with the handcuffs properly spaced and double locked, and transported to MDC (Metropolitan Detention Center) without further incident.”

This obviously was not true because, at 4:16 a.m., Franco discovered Lankford lying in a fetal position on the floor of the substation, the shackle chain around his neck. He was motionless.

Surveillance video of the cell shows Franco walk over to Lankford’s body and kick his leg, and then walk out when there was no response.

He called for his supervisors and another officer, but not medical assistance. And he grabbed the two detention log sheets he should have filled out when he checked on Lankford every 30 minutes.

“Officer Franco proceeded to fill out two Detention Log Sheets and exited the substation, calling the Union President,” the investigator wrote in the complaint. “Officer Franco stated, ‘Based off observing who I believed to be a deceased person, I was kind of in shock, stressed out about what was going to happen to myself, and contaminating a possible scene.'”

The investigation also found another officer also failed to render aid or call for medical assistance, and Franco’s supervising sergeant submitted his inaccurate police report. The shackles Lankford had used to hang himself had been left there by another officer during an arrest a couple of weeks earlier – another misstep.

Robert Work, an attorney and director of the mental health division for the Law Offices of the Public Defender, said Lankford was his foster brother and had lived with his family for several years after the age of 5.

Work, whose sister and mother are also attorneys, said Lankford had behavioral health issues and was in jail or prison for about 75% of his adult life. The warrants he was arrested for stemmed from an earlier charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, according to court records.

Work said Lankford got married several years ago in the Torrance County Detention Facility to a woman who had been writing letters to him from Oklahoma, and Work – who was visiting another client at the prison at the time – acted as his best man.

Work said he wasn’t necessarily surprised to learn his foster brother had killed himself, but it was “a sad end to a sad life.”

“Every time he would make progress, he would just go back,” Work said. “Some of it was his fault, some of it was the circumstances, some of it – I think – was he just couldn’t function.”

Very different cases

Initially the proposed discipline – determined, interim chief Medina says, by a group of deputy chiefs and then-chief Geier – was that Officer Franco should be terminated.

But after a pre-disciplinary hearing attended by Franco, D’Amato, the union president, and others, Geier determined the officer should be suspended without pay for 360 hours.

In a memo written in April, but apparently amended in August, Geier wrote that Franco had served 150 hours of suspension and his performance over the past several months was exemplary. He recommended the rest of the suspension be put on hold.

The memo to the commander of the internal affairs division says Lankford’s death was an unfortunate, tragic incident, and Franco has admitted his mistakes and taken responsibility for his actions. It says Franco was once awarded “uniformed officer of the month” and he had not had any other use-of-force infractions since the case involving Howard in 2015.

In interviews before he left APD, Geier said he saw Franco’s use of force against Howard and the circumstances surrounding Lankford’s death as very different cases, and one should have no bearing on the other. He said he worried that too strict discipline would hurt morale in the department and that Franco should be given a chance to improve.

Interim chief Medina doesn’t agree with Geier at all.

Medina said he is talking to city legal about the suspension since he was already in charge of discipline in August when Geier made that recommendation.

When asked how he would handle the same situation now, Medina said simply: “The officer would be terminated.”

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