Thursday, April 14, 2011
Officers Unaware of Mental Issues
By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
Albuquerque police Detectives Richard Hilger and Christopher Brown knew they were dealing with a potentially violent individual when they went to arrest Christopher Torres at his family's northwest Albuquerque home Tuesday.
But they didn't know Torres had a history of mental illness.
Brown shot and killed Torres after a violent struggle in which Torres managed to take Hilger's pistol, officials said.
In the detectives' possession shortly after 2 p.m. Tuesday was a newly signed felony warrant for Torres' arrest that alleged he had tried to carjack a woman at a traffic light on Paseo del Norte on Feb. 17.
Hilger and Brown also knew that APD had received 25 calls for aggressive driving and "road rage" incidents between Jan. 25 and March 29 involving the black Ford Mustang that Torres was driving Feb. 17.
But the detectives did not know Torres had been arrested three days after that incident, on Feb. 20, after he allegedly attacked an armed man in a Taylor Ranch restaurant and later told police "satellites are observing us" and that he was on medication for schizophrenia, Albuquerque Deputy Police Chief Beth Paiz told the Journal on Wednesday evening.
Hilger and Brown are both trained in crisis intervention techniques, city Public Safety Director Darren White said during a Wednesday morning news conference. Crisis intervention training includes techniques for dealing with mentally ill suspects.
Still, the Tuesday afternoon encounter in the Torres' backyard on the 7600 block of Sunrose NW ended in tragedy.
During a struggle with the two detectives, who had come to arrest him on a $50,000 felony warrant stemming from the Feb. 17 incident, Torres managed to pull a pistol from Hilger's holster, White said.
Hilger and Brown, who are assigned to APD's Northeast Impact team, had gone to the home on the 7600 block of Sunrose NW around 2 p.m., White said.
The detectives had tracked Torres to the home owned by his mother, Bernalillo County Deputy Manager Renetta Torres, through the license plate that was on the black Ford Mustang, White said.
After knocking on the front door, Hilger heard a sound in the backyard and went to check it out, White said. That's where he found Torres, 27.
Hilger tried to take Torres into custody on the warrant, he said, but Torres became violent and punched the detective in the face.
Hilger tried to handcuff Torres, and a struggle ensued, White said. The two men went to the ground, and Torres managed to take Hilger's pistol out of its holster.
Torres and Hilger struggled for the gun, and Brown drew his weapon, he said.
"Because of fear for the officers' safety, (Brown) fired at least three shots," White said.
Torres was pronounced dead at the scene.
Paiz said officers going to serve warrants normally check for additional warrants on the suspect before arriving on scene.
"Clearly the incident at Garcia's had not come to their attention because there was not an active warrant on that case," she said. "From the actions on the road (on Feb. 17) anyone could safely assume that they were dealing with someone who was violent. But as far as mental health issues, it does not look like (Hilger and Brown) were aware of that."
Paiz hesitated to comment on a hypothetical scenario, but said APD may have approached the situation differently had the officers been aware of the Feb. 20 incident at the restaurant.
"Obviously if we know something is going to be really high-risk, we will deploy our SWAT team," she said. "We try to plan for the worst and hope for the best. And believe me, the officers in this case would've loved a different outcome."
Hilger and Brown were placed on standard three-day leave while an investigative unit composed of officers from several different law enforcement agencies looks into the circumstances of the shooting.
On Feb. 17, Torres was driving along Paseo del Norte when he came to a stop light at Wyoming Boulevard, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. He got out of his vehicle, approached a woman who was also stopped at the light and tore open the driver's side door of her vehicle.
Christopher Torres then tried to pull the woman from her vehicle, police said, but she was able to get away. The woman called police and gave them Torres' license plate number and, several weeks later, identified him in a photo lineup. That prompted APD to issue a warrant for his arrest.
Meanwhile, Torres attacked a man at Garcia's Kitchen in Taylor Ranch on Feb. 20, police said. Screaming he was a federal agent, he was subdued by other customers until police arrived.
As of Tuesday, that case was being evaluated in one of Metropolitan Court's specialty divisions to determine whether Torres was competent to stand trial, court spokeswoman Janet Blair said.
APD had not yet linked Torres to the Feb. 17 incident when he was arrested in the Feb. 20 Garcia's incident.
Tuesday's incident marked the city's third officer-involved death this year. In February, Jacob Mitschelen was fatally shot after a traffic stop in southeast Albuquerque. In March, a man died after being shocked by police with a stun gun.
In 2010, there were 14 officer-involved shootings in Albuquerque. Nine of those were fatal.
The warrant served on Torres had been signed by a judge Tuesday.
Numerous Albuquerque police units, SUVs and an armored SWAT truck remained on scene several hours after the shooting. After several hours, police determined that no one else was in the home.