Suit: SFPD officers not prepared to deal with mentally ill
Family of schizophrenic man killed by police in July accuses city of negligence, battery
The family of a 24-year-old man fatally shot by Santa Fe police this summer has filed a wrongful death lawsuit claiming the shooting exemplifies the city’s failure to properly train its police force in how to identify and interact with people with mental illness.
With the assistance of six lawyers from three different law firms, Roseanne Lopez, the half-sister of Anthony Benavidez, filed the complaint Monday in state District Court in Santa Fe as personal representative of his estate. The complaint names the city as the defendant in a claim of battery against Benavidez and another count of negligence causing battery.
In addition to seeking compensatory damages for Benavidez’s estate, the lawsuit asks a judge to order the city to adopt new policies with regard to
training and monitoring police officers.
The lawsuit says too few Santa Fe police officers are trained to “identify and interact with citizens afflicted by mental illness who are unable to comply with officer commands through no fault of their own.
“As a result, officers antagonize mentally disabled suspects, needlessly escalating citizen/ officer encounters into unlawful searches, seizures, and arrests instead of engaging in deescalation techniques,” the nine-page complaint says. “Then, after creating a dangerous situation for all, officers deploy force, both lethal and not, unnecessarily.”
The death of Benavidez on the morning of July 19, after two officers fired 17 shots at him through an apartment window, “exemplifies every one of these failures,” the lawsuit says. Benavidez, who had schizophrenia, posed no deadly threat to officers who surrounded his apartment after he stabbed his mental health caseworker and threw homemade objects at police through a window, the lawsuit says.
The court action, which asks for a judge to order the city to reform a “culture of officers using excessive force,” comes amid a time of changing leadership in the police department. Chief Patrick Gallagher recently announced that he will take a job in Las Cruces months before a new mayoral administration takes over after the March municipal elections.
A state police spokeswoman said this week the agency forwarded its investigation into the shooting to District Attorney Marco Serna for a determination as to whether the shooting was justified under criminal law.
Greg Gurulé, Santa Fe police spokesman, declined to comment Tuesday. City spokesman Matt Ross said, “We can’t comment on pending or active litigation.”
On Sunday, reported that 67 officers out of a 167-member force were certified after a 2011 state law requiring the 40-hour crisis intervention training went into effect. The article also quoted State Police Chief Pete Kassetas as saying the state-mandated two-hour training course in crisis negotiation that officers are required to take once every two years is not enough.
The lawsuit cites those same figures, alleging the city knows “officers need more than some two-hour course every two years in de-escalation and mental health training, and yet they knowingly fail to provide adequate crisis intervention training.”
On Tuesday afternoon, at a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee at the Roundhouse, Kassetas told state lawmakers that the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy has “changed that warrior mentality in training.”
The lawsuit against the city of Santa Fe portrays a starkly different picture of the city’s police force.
Santa Fe police commanders on the scene “chose weapons over words, refusing to wait until dispatched crisis negotiators could establish communications with Anthony,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit asks a judge to issue an injunction requiring that all Santa Fe police officers be trained in crisis intervention and to “recognize the signs of mental impairment, including mental disability and illness, and train them how to communicate effectively with those individuals.”
It also asks for an order that the police department revise its policies to require that all use of force by officers receives “meaningful review and punishment if excessive.”
The lawsuit says that seconds before firing 16 shots from his handgun at Benavidez, Officer Jeremy Bisagna “turned off his body camera, tampering with the best evidence of his actions, in anticipation of his choice to take Anthony’s life.”
City officials have not commented on whether Bisagna intentionally turned off his camera. The police department initiated an internal investigation into that matter.
Following the shooting, Bisagna is captured on another officer’s body camera saying he thought Benavidez was going to shoot him — though no gun was found on Benavidez.
The lawsuit asks that a judge require the city to train and supervise officers to record any such contact, and that officers take polygraph tests concerning unrecorded contact or risk termination.
It also asks for a judge to require Santa Fe to provide centralized screening or intake services within 72 hours of contact with someone experiencing homelessness or mental illness, as well as offer more medical services to such individuals. The city of Santa Fe should be required to provide a rental subsidy housing for approximately 250 homeless people and motel vouchers to assist those living on the streets transition into rental housing, the lawsuit says.
Three attorneys with the Albuquerque law firm Kennedy, Kennedy & Ives are representing the Benavidez estate. The Kennedy, Kennedy & Ives firm in 2014 won $5 million settlement with the city of Albuquerque in a lawsuit over the fatal Albuquerque police shooting of homeless camper James Boyd, who was also diagnosed with schizophrenia, in a case that led to some of Duke City’s largest street protests in recent memory.
Santa Fe attorney Slate Stern also is representing Benavidez’s family. Stern’s personal injury firm last month won a $165,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed by a couple who had an hourslong standoff with a police SWAT team after an animal control officer falsely accused one of the plaintiffs of pulling a knife on the officer.
Lawyers Rick Barrera and Kent Buckingham of the Buckingham Barrera Law Firm, based in Midland, Texas, are also representing Benavidez’s estate in the lawsuit.
Gregory Shaffer, who last month left his post as Santa Fe County attorney to take an appointment to the District Court bench, is the judge assigned to the case.