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Expert questions officer’s hiring

Jonelle Ellis, older sister of Kenneth Ellis III, displays the Purple Heart her brother was awarded for service in the Iraq War as she testifies in court on Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

Jonelle Ellis, older sister of Kenneth Ellis III, displays the Purple Heart her brother was awarded for service in the Iraq War as she testifies in court on Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — During a contentious and emotional second day of testimony, an attorney for the city sparred with a plaintiffs’ expert over whether APD should have hired Brett Lampiris-Tremba and kept him on the force.

In 2010, Lampiris-Tremba shot Kenneth Ellis III in the parking lot of a convenience store at Constitution and Eubank NE after a nine-minute encounter during which Ellis paced in a tight circle, talked on a cellphone with his mother and held a gun to his own head.

That shooting is at the center of a civil rights lawsuit being tried in state District Court.

Lampiris-Tremba never should have even had a chance to shoot Ellis, according to testimony from Melvin Tucker, a former FBI agent and police chief in North Carolina, who served as the Ellis family’s expert witness on police practices.

APD had numerous chances to prevent the shooting long before Lampiris-Tremba and Ellis crossed paths, Tucker testified, either by not hiring him in the first place after a city psychologist expressed “reservations” about Lampiris-Tremba, or by firing him for lying in the years after he became a police officer.

Tucker’s testimony took up the morning session in the trial of the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Ellis’ family.

Ellis had left the apartment of a suspected car thief that police were watching on the day he was shot. Officer Byron “Trey” Economidy blocked Ellis’ Corvette into a parking space outside the convenience store. After answering Economidy’s question about whether he was “tweaking” — slang for being high on methamphetamine — Ellis got out of the car and held a gun to his own head during the encounter with officers.

State District Judge Shannon Bacon ruled last month that the shooting was excessive force as a matter of law, leaving the jury to decide how much money the city owes Ellis’ young son. Jurors also are considering other claims, including that the city was negligent in hiring, training and retaining Lampiris-Tremba.

Jonelle Ellis, Kenneth Ellis’ older sister, fought back tears — sometimes unsuccessfully — as she described her brother’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned from combat in 2006.

Kenneth Ellis was a great chess player who loved his young son, his sister said in court. But he also had vivid nightmares and was easily startled by loud noises in the years after his best friend’s limbless body landed on him when their convoy was blown up by a crude bomb while on patrol.

Jonelle Ellis narrated a slideshow of family photos she had prepared for her brother’s funeral, and which was played Friday in court. The final slide showed a memorial in the parking lot where her brother was shot. As soon as it appeared on the screen, Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy objected, and Bacon ordered Ellis’ attorneys to turn off the projector and sternly instructed jurors to disregard the slide.

After the jury left the courtroom, Bacon told attorneys Joe and Shannon Kennedy and Frances Carpenter that letting the slide appear on the screen was a “significant miscue.”

Hiring process and candidate disqualification

Testifying under direct examination by Joe Kennedy, Tucker said the hiring and officer-selection processes are the most important roles a chief plays at a police department.

“If you’ve hired a bad apple in the beginning, well, now you’ve just got a bad apple who is trained,” he said.

APD rejected Lampiris-Tremba’s application in 1992. He applied again in 1997, and APD hired him.

Tucker said that was a mistake because Lampiris-Tremba had admitted to using a fake ID to buy alcohol in 1987 when he was 17 years old in the military; admitted to “walking naked in public with his wife” in Hawaii years prior to becoming on officer; admitted to stealing $20 from his employer when he was 15, and admitted to lying about past marijuana use on his 1992 application with APD.

None of those incidents by itself would be enough to disqualify a police candidate, but Tucker said he wouldn’t hire an applicant with all of those things in his background.

Moreover, Tucker pointed out, the city’s psychologist predicted that Lampiris-Tremba would be disciplined for cause during his first 12 months of employment.

On cross-examination, Levy pointed out that Lampiris-Tremba wasn’t disciplined in his first year on the job, saying: “No dire prediction came true, did it?”

Tucker replied: “Well, it took longer than 12 months.”

In 2003, Lampiris-Tremba was suspended for a day after he admitted to lying on a time sheet.

Tucker said he would have fired Lampiris-Tremba for the lie. “If you lie — there’s nothing more significant to the integrity of a law enforcement officer,” he said.

Levy challenged Tucker, saying that was simply his judgment, which the veteran expert court witness was “substituting for the judgment of the Albuquerque Police Department” after the fact and without knowing Lampiris-Tremba.

“You can see where (APD’s) judgment led us: here, today … Yes, I’m substituting my judgment for the judgment of Chief Ray Schultz. I would’ve fired him … I don’t care if an officer writes great reports if he lies.”

Tucker also called into question APD’s decision to keep Lampiris-Tremba on the force after a 2004 incident in which he pulled over a suspected car thief — who turned out to be innocent — and used a Taser on him. Lampiris-Tremba didn’t fill out a required use of force form, and APD brass decided to issue a 10-hour suspension that was held in abeyance.

Lampiris-Tremba is scheduled to take the stand when the trial continues on Monday.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal