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Ellis case would boost APD payouts

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A six-figure settlement in a 2009 case and a $10.3 million jury award last month in a lawsuit filed by the family of Iraq War veteran Kenneth Ellis III have pushed the potential taxpayer tab for police misconduct cases in 2013 above $12 million.

That would eclipse the three previous years combined for money paid out on police misconduct cases, depending on how the Ellis verdict and a handful of other pending lawsuits play out.

Last year, APD cases cost the city $1.9 million. That was the lowest total since 2007.

Counting judgments, settlements and legal costs, the city paid out about $6 million to cover police lawsuits in 2010. In 2011, that figure fell slightly to $5.4 million.

This year’s potential total has surpassed the $9.7 million the city had set aside for police cases.

But city officials say they’re not concerned about the solvency of Albuquerque’s risk management fund, which is the pool of money used to pay out judgments and settle cases against all divisions of city government.

“Our finances are sound,” city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry told the Journal last week.

Perry declined to say how much money overall is in the fund.

It’s still unclear how last month’s award to the Ellis family, one of the biggest in city history, will play out. In that case, APD officer Brett Lampiris-Tremba fatally shot Ellis in the neck during a nine-minute encounter with police in which Ellis held a gun to his own head.

No check has been written yet, Perry said, as post-trial motions work their way through the court system. The city has hired outside counsel and may appeal the case.

The city suffered a major setback in the case when state District Judge Shannon Bacon ruled the shooting was unlawful, leaving the jury to decide how much the city should pay.

The amounts paid out by the city in 2010 and 2011 for police misconduct were the highest since at least the year 2000 as Mayor Richard Berry’s administration settled several high-profile cases, many of them left over from his predecessor, former Mayor Martin Chávez. Chávez’s policy was to take nearly every case to trial.

Berry took office in December of 2009.

Perry said it’s typical for the amount paid out in police cases to fluctuate.

“Claims, and what they produce in settlements, judgments and dismissals, kind of go up and down,” Perry said, adding that yearly totals often reflect the number of claims filed against the police department two, three or even five years prior.

Of the 28 claims against APD that were closed in 2012, 14 stemmed from incidents that took place prior to Berry taking office. In the two years prior, significantly more cases that were closed arose from incidents during Chávez’s time at City Hall.

Perry also pointed to an increase in the city’s “winning percentage” in 2012, when, through trial verdicts, court motions and other means, the city closed cases without paying any money in judgments or settlements . The city won 13 of 28 cases last year. The annual average for most of the decade prior was about a 35-percent “winning percentage.”

The city is also closing more cases under Berry than it had under Chávez.

From 2002 through 2009, when Chávez was mayor, taxpayers shelled out about $19.4 million to close 120 cases.

During Berry’s three-plus years, the tab has climbed past $25 million to close 123 cases.

When Berry took office, he directed Perry, who was then city attorney, to review Chávez’s no-settlement policy – which had exceptions – and decide whether considering officer misconduct claims on a case-by-case basis might work better.

“You can kick the can down the road and kick the can down the road,” Perry said this week, “but, at some point or another, these cases are either going to trial or they’re going to be settled.”

Among the high-profile cases still in the pipeline is a lawsuit filed in federal court by the family of Alan Gomez, who was fatally shot in the doorway of his brother’s home by APD officer Sean Wallace in May 2011.

Another centers around an incident from the month before when APD officer Christopher Brown fatally shot Christopher Torres, who had a history of mental illness, in Torres’ backyard after police said Torres had taken a gun from Brown’s partner.

Torres was the son of Deputy Bernalillo County Manager Renetta Torres.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal