The Albuquerque Police Department’s training for officers, in particular in the area of dealing with people with mental health problems, went on trial Thursday in state District Court.
So did APD officer Byron “Trey” Economidy’s stop of a vehicle driven by an Iraq War veteran in January 2010 that led, ultimately, to another officer fatally shooting the man in the neck.
The broader context for the trial was a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Kenneth Ellis III. It began Thursday in state District Judge Shannon Bacon’s courtroom after lawyers spent most of this week wrangling over picking a jury and what evidence and testimony would be allowed.
Bacon last month granted a motion filed by attorneys for the Ellis family and ruled that APD Detective Brett Lampiris-Tremba’s shooting of Ellis in a convenience store parking lot at Eubank and Constitution NE was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
That leaves the jury to decide how much money the city must pay the Ellis family. The 12 men and women must also decide whether APD was negligent in hiring Lampiris-Tremba, training him and keeping him on the force, as well as whether Economidy violated the Fourth Amendment when he stopped Ellis’ black Corvette.
The courtroom was packed all morning. Several members of Ellis’ family were in attendance, as were Lampiris-Tremba’s parents. Local civil rights lawyers also dropped by.
And for a time, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer was in the courtroom.
Lampiris-Tremba’s shooting of Ellis was among the first in a string of police shootings in Albuquerque that led, in large part, to the Justice Department’s decision to launch a wide-ranging civil rights investigation of APD. That probe began in November.
Economidy was the first witness to take the stand after opening statements by Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy and plaintiffs’ attorney Shannon Kennedy — who is representing the Ellis family along with her husband, Joe Kennedy, and Frances Carpenter.
Carpenter questioned Economidy about the stop.
Economidy said he had been assisting undercover officers working a stolen-car tactical operation in the area. After Ellis arrived at the apartment complex officers were watching, Economidy said he ran his license plate through a database. The plate came back to a “Ford COR,” the officer testified, and that didn’t match the Chevy Corvette Ellis was driving.
Officers followed Ellis from the complex, but lost sight of him and didn’t stop him, Economidy testified. Ellis came back to the complex a short time later and left again. Undercover officers followed him again and asked Economidy over the police radio to stop him for intelligence gathering purposes.
Economidy testified that he stopped Ellis because of the plate and because of the request from other officers.
He followed Ellis into the convenience store parking lot with the lights on top of his marked patrol car turned on.
Carpenter pointed out that there was paint transfer on the Corvette and that it was dented. She suggested Economidy had rammed Ellis’ car.
Economidy denied that. He said he pulled right up to Ellis’ vehicle from behind, that the Corvette rolled up onto a sidewalk in front of the store and then rolled back into Economidy’s squad car.
APD Sgt. Cassandra Kukowski testified after Economidy. Her area of expertise: crisis intervention and crisis negotiation.
Kukowski, a 20-year veteran, described several techniques trained crisis intervention officers use to de-escalate situations with potentially dangerous people. Many of them were not used by the numerous officers who responded to the Ellis scene.
Neither Lampiris-Tremba nor Economidy was trained in crisis intervention as a specialty, although all officers receive basic de-escalation training at the APD academy, according to testimony Thursday.
Kukowski also testified that, to her knowledge, between February 2007 and the end of 2009, APD only offered one crisis intervention training block. Levy cast some doubt on that testimony during cross-examination but stopped short of saying it was untrue.
During opening statements earlier Thursday, Shannon Kennedy lambasted what she called APD’s lack of training for officers in the areas of crisis intervention and dealing with people living with mental illness. Ellis had post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The evidence will show that if Brett Lampiris-Tremba had had that training, he would’ve known that time was his friend” on the day he shot Ellis once in the neck during a nine-minute encounter with police, Kennedy said.
Kennedy said several expert witnesses will testify over the course of the trial, which is expected to last until late next week, including some who will explain how to “calculate the value of human life.”
In her opening remarks, Levy said Economidy’s stop of Ellis was “completely lawful” and that several officers on scene tried to reason with Ellis, who held the gun to his own head throughout the encounter. Moreover, Levy said, officers had no way of knowing Ellis was suffering from PTSD.
She asked the jury to be reasonable when considering how much to award in damages.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal