ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Albuquerque Police Department should never have hired Sean Wallace as an officer, because his previous career in law enforcement was “marred by fraud and by excessive force claims, including deadly force,” according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of an unarmed man Wallace fatally shot in May.
But the department was in the middle of a “concerted effort” to grow its ranks in April 2007, when Wallace came on board as a lateral hire from State Police. And APD officials undertook that effort at the peril of their own hiring standards, according to the lawsuit filed by attorneys Mark and Joe Fine on behalf of Alan Gomez’s family.
Gomez was the third man Wallace had shot while wearing a police uniform.
Wallace, now a K-9 officer with APD, was a State Police officer when he shot and killed Leo Lopez of Chimayó in 2004. He was cleared by a grand jury, but the state paid $235,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
And, in January 2010, he shot Wayne Cordova, who was on an Albuquerque rooftop crying and asking to be killed. Cordova survived.
The lawsuit filed this week names as defendants Wallace and Police Chief Ray Schultz, individually and in their official capacities, and the city of Albuquerque. Seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys fees, it claims wrongful death, negligent hiring and supervision, and civil rights violations, including excessive force.
“The main thing we’re trying to accomplish (with the lawsuit) is accountability, police accountability,” Mike Gomez, Alan’s father, said in a telephone interview.
He said the family wants police to know they “can’t get away with anything they want because the system covers them. My son had just turned 22 years old. He was a good person, and he was well loved. Alan didn’t deserve to die.”
Wallace shot Gomez, 22, on May 10 after Gomez allegedly held his brother and his brother’s girlfriend against their will at a house in the 2800 block of Madison NE. His brother, Eric Gomez, later said he hadn’t felt as though he was being held prisoner.
Officers were dispatched to the home after Eric’s girlfriend reported that Alan had a gun and she was being held inside, according to the initial 911 call provided by police. The woman told the dispatcher she didn’t know what was wrong with Alan and asked her to “please hurry.”
Police had also received reports that Gomez was armed and had fired a rifle outside the home, but he came out to talk to officers and was holding only a black plastic spoon when shot in the back while walking into the house.
Wallace was cleared by a grand jury in the Cordova shooting.
The lawsuit addresses the Cordova case.
It says Cordova was not armed, but “after the shooting and in keeping with APD’s custom of misidentifying objects as weapons during officer-involved shootings, Defendant Wallace and APD offered conflicting accounts of whether or not Mr. Cordova had an object in his hand at the time that the Defendant Wallace shot him, and different explanations for why the shot was fired,” the Fines wrote in their lawsuit.
The lawsuit contends that State Police also paid out on Wallace’s behalf after he falsely imprisoned and battered a man during a 2001 incident, and that Wallace again cost the state thousands of dollars in 2007 after an investigation into whether he was billing the state for attending law enforcement classes that he was teaching.
“Upon information and belief, Defendant Wallace was informed by the State of New Mexico that he would be terminated from the State Police Department unless he left on his own terms,” the Fines wrote. “In response to the threat of termination from the New Mexico State Police Department, Defendant Wallace applied to APD.”
The lawsuit claims Schultz and APD were aware of Wallace’s troubles at State Police, but ignored their own hiring standards and gave him a job.
Schultz and the department were also negligent by not disciplining Wallace or correcting his conduct after the Cordova shooting, the lawsuit contends.
“By failing to take disciplinary or remedial action, APD communicated to Defendant Wallace that his conduct in shooting Mr. Cordova was consistent with APD policy, and authorized and emboldened Defendant Wallace to repeat similar conduct in the future,” the Fines wrote.
Gomez was one of 20 men shot by APD officers from January 2010 through late August of this year. He was one of 14 who died.
His father has become the unofficial spokesman for the families of those who have been shot. The families have pushed for a change in leadership at APD during City Council meetings and other public forums, more accountability among officers through police oversight and a federal investigation of APD, which the U.S. Department of Justice is considering.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal