ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Video: Torres’ neighbor explains what she saw the day he was shot and killed
The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office cleared two Albuquerque Police Department officers in the 2011 fatal shooting of a mentally ill man, but not before criticizing the department’s investigation of the incident in which APD waited nearly two years to interview the only eyewitness to the shooting, according to their report.
“It is unfathomable to imagine a 911 caller and eyewitness to the event was not questioned by law enforcement until almost two years later,” the DA’s report released Friday reads.
APD spokeswoman Tasia Martinez defended the department Saturday night.
“Regardless of when the statements were taken, the District Attorney, after a thorough review, concluded that the witness was not credible and the statements were repeatedly inconsistent and contradictory,” Martinez wrote in an email.
District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said contradictory statements by the witness were a key reason why charges against the officers weren’t filed.
On April 12, 2011, APD detectives Christopher J. Brown and Richard Hilger were trying to serve a warrant at the home of 27-year-old Christopher Torres, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, when an altercation ensued, ending with Brown shooting Torres three times at point-blank range in the back.
The officers were dressed in plain clothes when they told Torres, who was in his back yard, they were serving a warrant, according to the DA’s report. “I’m going to fight you,” Torres reportedly said. The officers jumped over the fence, knocking down part of it, to reach Torres.
“An argument can be made that this action by the detectives escalated the confrontation,” the report reads.
Torres’ family has been highly critical of the shooting and the department’s investigation into the shooting and is suing the city and the APD in both district and federal court.
Torres’ father, Steve Torres, said he wasn’t surprised to hear that the officers aren’t facing criminal charges, because the DA’s office has never pressed charge against an officer involved in a shooting. “We were not surprised, we fully expected it,” Torres said Saturday. “We were not holding out any hopes that this DA was going to do anything different. We’re disappointed.”
The DA’s decision comes nearly three years after the shooting. Brandenburg said compiling the report took longer than most because APD’s investigation was not thorough.
“We really went through a lot to try to figure out how we could build this case if we were to prosecute it,” Brandenburg said Saturday. “We looked at it very critically and couldn’t get through to the other end.”
She said it’s difficult to prosecute officers because New Mexico law gives them more leeway to use deadly force than the average citizen.
“We have to ask, ‘Did (the officer) have the intent to murder (Torres) for no reason?’ ” Brandenburg said. “That’s really hard to prove, especially in New Mexico where violence is way above the national average and firearms are rampant.”
The officers both say they were in fear for their lives during the altercation, during which they say Torres got control of Hilger’s gun and was turning toward him as if to shoot, according to the report.
“The fear of God. Just sheer (expletive) terror is all I’m hearing,” Brown said, referring to when Torres grabbed Hilger’s gun, according to the report.
Torres’ fingerprints were not found on the gun, according to the report, although his DNA was.
The report reveals that a second autopsy concluded there was “spice” – a synthetic marijuana substitute – in Torres’ system. Torres had also not taken his prescribed anti-psychotic medication at the time of the shooting, according to that toxicology report.
The autopsy concluded that the gun had been touching Torres’ back when he was shot “as was evidenced by muzzle imprints and soot disposition of the entrance wounds,” according to the report.
After the shooting, family members – including Torres’ mother, Renetta Torres, the county’s director of human resources – questioned why the officers weren’t aware of his mental health issues before trying to serve the warrant.
The report didn’t discuss whether the officers were negligent in looking at Christopher Torres’ history of mental illness; Brandenburg said this is because her office only looks at criminal allegations, not civil.
Steve Torres said he didn’t want to file suit, but felt he had to because the department wasn’t responding to his concerns.
“We are not anti-APD. There are some very good officers on the police force, good friends of ours, but I think it’s clear that there’s an element of the police force that’s out of control,” Torres said. “No amount of money is going to bring Christopher back. But if having to pay out money is going to force them to change, then that’s what we’re doing.”
Brandenburg said her office did a lot of extra work – she wrote the report herself because she said it was so complex – and said no matter the decision, the outcome of the situation was a tragedy.
“We didn’t take anything for granted. We looked at it very critically and I think it’s what the people deserve,” Brandenburg said. “I have so much empathy for their family, they just seem like really nice people who did everything they could to support Christopher, and it’s just a horrible tragic situation.”
Journal staff writer Patrick Lohmann contributed to this report.