LAS CRUCES – The family of a 75-year-old woman killed by police demanded that the district attorney charge the police officer with murder during a news conference on Thursday.
The demand was accompanied by an announcement that the family planned on filing two civil lawsuits against the City of Las Cruces and its police department after an officer shot and killed Amelia Baca on April 16.
“Let me be blunt. Amelia Baca was executed by the Las Cruces Police Department,” the family’s attorney, Sam Bregman, told reporters at a news conference. “As a result of this senseless tragedy, the Baca family is respectfully demanding that the district attorney charge this officer with murder.”
The announcement comes two days after the City of Las Cruces released the officer’s body camera footage as part of a public records request. The footage, which Bregman played during the news conference, shows the officer shooting Baca twice after a brief exchange.
On the video, the officer yells at Baca in English. Baca’s family confirmed she was a Spanish speaker. The officer demands several times that Baca drop two large kitchen knives she was holding before shooting her twice.
“38 seconds. That’s how long he was at the front door before he decided to fire two shots into her,” Bregman said.
The video shows two family members telling the officer that Baca was mentally ill and experienced a form of dementia. Baca’s daughter, Jennifer Enriquez, also had told 911 dispatchers that Baca experienced mental illness when she called requesting help.
Bregman said dispatchers informed the officer of that before he arrived at the scene.
The family’s demands of District Attorney Gerald Byers will have to wait for consideration until a task force of local law enforcement departments sends its investigation to his office. It’s unclear how long that could take.
In a statement released shortly after the news conference, the City of Las Cruces city manager said that the investigation was ongoing and had several moving parts.
“While we are hoping for a prompt investigation, it is more important that it is done in a correct and thorough manner,” City Manager Ifo Pili said in a statement.
Family speaks out
For the first time since the shooting, Baca’s family spoke publicly about the killing of their mother and grandmother.
Four of Baca’s daughters and two of her granddaughters flanked Bregman during the news conference while several other family members were present outside.
Perla Enriquez Baca, Baca’s daughter, told reporters that her mother was an immigrant who came to the United States in her 30s. She worked until she was able to buy her own house in Las Cruces, Perla said.
“For her to die in that place like that,” Perla said, referring to the house on the 800 block of Fir Avenue. Perla was unable to finish that statement without crying. “It’s very difficult for all of us right now because honestly, everyone expects their mother to die of old age.”
Perla described her mother as someone who cared about her home and made sure her kids picked up after themselves.
“She was a lady who scolded us – ‘don’t put your feet up on the couch, pick up the trash,'” Perla said.
She added that her mom was an avid gardener and recycler. She said that Baca softened up on cleaning and chores when her grand kids came around.
“When her grand kids and great-grand kids would come to the house, making a mess, she would say ‘leave them alone, don’t scold them.’ She was happy just having them in the house,” she said.
Bregman told reporters he intended to file at least two lawsuits – one in federal court and one in state district court.
“You can’t walk up to someone’s front door when they’re having a mental health crisis … and shoot them after yelling at them for 38 seconds,” Bregman said.
Bregman, who also represents the family of Antonio Valenzuela, pointed to LCPD’s policy covering how officers should conduct themselves when responding to a mental health crisis. That document shows that officers are supposed to:
• Ensure that backup officers are present before taking any action
• Obtain information on the subject from family or friends, if possible
• Attempt to calm the situation.
Bregman also pointed to specific instructions that call for officers to “move slowly, being careful to avoid exciting the person,” and “provide reassurance that the police are there to help and that appropriate care will be provided.”
“Is there anybody that lives in Las Cruces right now that has a loved one that is having a mental health crisis that would ever trust in calling the police after what they just witnessed?” Bregman said. “… Certainly not if they want their loved one to be helped.”
Bregman said that the point of the lawsuits is to hold LCPD accountable for killing Baca.
“We will do everything in our power to make sure that in a couple of years I’m not here with a third family that’s been tragically killed by the Las Cruces Police Department,” Bregman said.
In August 2020, the city agreed to pay the Valenzuela estate $6.5 million as part of a civil lawsuit filed by Bregman. Months before the settlement, Valenzuela was killed after former Las Cruces Police Officer Christopher Smelser placed him in a vascular neck restraint. Smelser is charged with second-degree murder and his criminal trial is scheduled to begin July 11, 2022.
The settlement with the Valenzuela family also asked LCPD to ban all forms of chokeholds, implement mandatory yearly mental health exams for officers and require empathy, de-escalation and racial bias training on an annual or at least biannual basis.
In December 2020, the Las Cruces City Council agreed to consider updating its police use-of-force policies, though it was noted in a council meeting that some of the policies would have to be negotiated with the police union.
‘Extend our sympathies’
Shortly after the news conference, the City of Las Cruces released a statement that said it could not comment much on the pending litigation.
“First, we do not take critical incidents such as this lightly, especially when there is a loss of life. We, again, extend our sympathies to the family and friends of Amelia Baca. Any loss of life, no matter the circumstances, is tragic,” City Manager Pili said in the news release.
Pili added that the officer who killed Baca was on administrative leave as of May 12. The officer has not been publicly identified by the police.
El Paso Times reporter Daniel Borunda contributed to this article. Justin Garcia is a public safety reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. He can be reached at JEGarcia@lcsun-news.com