The city of Albuquerque has agreed to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit over the April 2011 shooting death of Christopher Torres for $6 million – the amount of compensatory damages found by a state judge in a trial last year.
“It’s done,” said Torres family lawyer Kathy Love. “It’s not done for this family, but it will, I hope, let them move to the next chapter.”
Torres’ case became the focus of several national media reports about Albuquerque police shootings and the U.S. Department of Justice investigation that concluded that APD had a history of excessive force.
Torres, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was killed in his backyard when detectives in plain clothes confronted him while serving a warrant connected to a road rage incident.
One psychologist testified that the 27-year-old was one of the highest functioning individuals he had seen with the mental illness – he worked part time at a metal parts fabrication business, helped out neighbors with chores and lived with his parents.
Stephen and Renetta Torres had reached out to the Albuquerque Police Department long before their son’s death to ask that they be notified in the event of any potential police interaction. That word never made it to the officers who showed up at the Torres home the day of his death.
At a bench trial in 2014, following a week of testimony, District Judge Shannon Bacon ruled for the Torres family on claims of battery involving the death of the Christopher in the backyard of his family home.
Her lengthy findings of fact and law concluded that police officers at the home to serve the traffic warrant in essence created the dangerous situation that led to the shooting. They had entered the yard where Christopher was playing with his dog, and he was shot during a scuffle with them.
A neighbor who saw much of the interaction through a gap in her fence called 911 to report that Torres was being attacked, but the caller was told it was police who were on the scene. The caller was never contacted during a subsequent investigation of the incident.
“We recognize how important this has been to the family and the community,” City Attorney Jessica Hernandez told the Journal on Thursday.
“We are constantly re-evaluating, ‘Is this the right time.’ We decided it was.
“The public’s trust in the police department is obviously a priority for the city, and we’re working to move forward with reforms. That’s another reason to put it behind us and put focus on reforms,” Hernandez said.
“This case has really had an impact, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to move forward.”
Although Bacon found more than $6 million in damages, the state Tort Claims Act limits liability for each occurrence to $400,000. The amounts were based on testimony by experts and others for funeral expenses, lost household services, loss of enjoyment of life and pain and suffering.
The family had filed a second, parallel lawsuit in federal court based on the same events but different legal theories. In a trial that was set for August, the Torres family would have been able to seek punitive damages against the city as well as collect attorney fees allowed under federal civil rights actions.
Bacon did not decide certain claims left for the federal case, such as whether APD condoned unconstitutional misconduct by its employees and whether management turned a blind eye to excessive force by its officers.
Both sides filed motions in the federal case seeking a ruling on whether Bacon’s damages calculation should be adopted.
U.S. District Judge Robert Brack of Las Cruces ruled in March that they could use Bacon’s figure, so the primary question for trial would have been the city’s liability.