Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
The shooting death by police of a 27-year-old man with schizophrenia in his own backyard drew plenty of attention to the Albuquerque Police Department in 2011 – and the spotlight is about to return.
Judge Shannon Bacon, who handed the city a significant defeat in an earlier police shooting, begins the trial in Bernalillo County District Court today in the wrongful death case brought by the family of Christopher Torres.
Torres was fatally shot when officers C.J. Brown and Richard Hilger tried to serve a felony arrest warrant on Torres for a road rage incident two months earlier. Torres, agitated, tried to punch Hilger and grabbed Hilger’s gun when the officer tried to arrest him on April 12, 2011. Police say they shot Torres in self-defense. Officers were not aware of his mental illness when they went to the home.
In the wake of the shooting on April 12, 2011, the Torres family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against APD and the city in state court, along with a related, separate civil rights lawsuit in federal court. The federal suit is pending.
Family members have also become outspoken critics of APD and have pressed for changes.
Bacon will try the case without a jury. The city initially did not ask for a jury, and when new counsel joined the case in 2013 and requested one, the judge ruled that, under state law, it was too late.
In the Torres lawsuit, Bacon will consider whether APD engaged in negligent hiring, training and supervision that led to Torres’ death and whether officers were justified when they fought with Torres, then shot him three times.
APD has denied negligent training and supervision and says the officers acted in self-defense.
The District Attorney’s Office, which reviewed the officers’ actions for possible criminal charges, submitted its review Feb. 14, finding no basis for criminal charges and closing the case.
But the family says in the lawsuit that police must use all lesser means before resorting to deadly force, and given the number of citizen deaths at the hands of police – reportedly more than similarly-sized departments – it’s time to “change the policies and culture of the department to protect citizens from its officers.”
Attorney Randi McGinn, whose firm represents father Stephen Torres as representative of his son’s estate, has requested compensatory damages against APD, as well as damages for aggravating circumstances, attorney fees and costs and “all other relief this court deems proper and appropriate.” That could include a request for procedural changes at the police department, though it is not spelled out in the lawsuit.
Bacon has a background in police shootings, having presided over an earlier wrongful death case against APD in which she found the city was liable before the case went to trial. A jury was empaneled to decide damages, and returned a verdict setting the amount at $10 million. The case settled before appeal.
In the Torres case, the city offered in December to deposit the maximum amount available under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act – $400,000 – into the court registry and avoid a trial.
Bacon denied the request, and the city was rebuffed when it tried to have the Supreme Court hear the question before trial.
The city argued that the Torres family has refused to try to settle the case, forcing the city to file its request.
Since the estate can’t recover any more than the city is offering, the city argued, there is no point in incurring “the significant expenditure of judicial resources and costs to the parties necessitated by a trial.”
Torres’ attorneys said the estate is entitled to “a full verdict in excess of the Tort Claims Act’s arbitrary and fundamentally unfair cap on recoverable damages” and, moreover, has a right to hold APD “publicly accountable” at trial.
Stephen Torres filed the lawsuit “to ensure that changes are made within APD to put a stop to its ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ culture,” attorneys wrote in response to the city’s motion.
A number of citizens were shot by police before Christopher Torres was killed, the family attorneys said, adding that “the pattern has not stopped despite a change of leadership, evaluation and recommendations by Police Executive Research Forum and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.”
The only way to force change, they said, is through punitive damages or a public trial and “the public’s demand for changes.”
Just before his death, they said in court documents, Christopher Torres was in pajamas and socks in a swing in his backyard, spending time with his dog, when undercover officers in street clothes approached in an unmarked car.
Four minutes later, he was dead.