A federal court jury Monday found excessive force by Albuquerque police officer Russell Perea against Jerry Rodriguez, the owner/operator of a tow truck business whose flame-embellished Hummer led to questioning related to a homicide.
The jury, which heard testimony last week before Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker, awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages to Rodriguez over the Dec. 7, 2010, incident.
Only Perea, of the four officers named individually, was found to have used excessive force, but the finding means a second trial phase in two weeks on municipal liability.
“Mr. Rodriguez felt vindicated by the verdict – like he’d been heard,” his attorney Cammie Nichols said of the verdict.
Former Chief Ray Schultz and the city were named in a claim based on allegations of inadequate screening, hiring, training and discipline. Schultz, the complaint alleged, failed to ensure that officers had the appropriate temperament and psychological status to work in professional law enforcement.
Perea was among the so-called “lateral hires” as the city pushed to beef up the police force in 2010 and whose training requirements were different from those who entered through APD’s academy.
Although the jury heard no testimony about it, Perea was fired by the city after inconsistencies in testimony with regard to time spent with former officer Levi Chavez, who was acquitted at trial for the murder of his wife.
But a personnel board later ordered Perea’s reinstatement, and the ruling was upheld by a state District Court judge.
During testimony in the trial, Rodriguez said he had been stopped and questioned once in November 2010 by Rio Rancho police responding to reports about a Hummer involved in an Albuquerque homicide.
APD told Rio Rancho it was looking for a Hummer with Mexican plates and a thin Mexican national – not a Hummer with New Mexico plates and the 6-foot, almost 300-pound Rodriguez.
A month later, Rodriguez said he believed he was being carjacked after being jumped from behind as he was getting into the vehicle where his longtime fiancee, Elaine Romero, already was seated on the passenger side.
Romero had noticed two men in jeans and hoodies who seemed to be following them to the parking lot outside and mentioned them to Rodriguez, but he did not see them. Then he was jumped and pulled to the pavement with his arms yanked up behind him until the right arm “popped.”
“It was really, really fast – probably seconds. It was like a slow-motion movie cut. I got the chills pretty hard. If it was a carjacking, Elaine was in the vehicle,” he said of his first thoughts after being forced belly-down to the pavement.
Rodriguez said he saw a uniformed officer with a machine-gun-looking weapon approach the Hummer. He believed it was to stop the assault. But as more officers showed up, he gradually realized that wasn’t the case. Throughout it all, the police officers never identified themselves as such, he said.
As the marked police units began to leave the parking lot, Romero sought out someone to demand a name and an explanation.
“I said, ‘You guys need to tell me what this is all about.’ The guy who was in charge came to talk to me. He gave me his card,” Romero testified. “I told him this can’t happen again. I have three boys.
“He brushed it off like it was no big deal,” she said.
Romero took Rodriguez to Presbyterian Hospital, and a physician put his arm in a sling.
Beyond the physical injury to Rodriguez, the jury was told the couple was profoundly affected psychologically.
“It was like time stood still,” Romero testified. “It was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever had to deal with. Jerry was in a lot of pain.”