ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – One year after a multi-million-dollar judgment against the city for a flawed police shooting, the city of Albuquerque and its police department are in the hot seat again, defending themselves in court over more allegations of excessive force in another police shooting with a deadly ending.
Monday marked the beginning of Christopher Torres’ wrongful death civil trial. Torres was killed in his backyard in April 2011 after police tried to arrest him for a road rage incident that happened weeks before.
In the first day of the trial, a neighbor who witnessed the scene through a fence testified she called 911 because she thought Torres was being attacked by two robbers before being shot.
It turns out those two men were cops – there to serve a warrant on Torres for a road rage incident.
APD Officers CJ Brown and Richard Hilger said Torres – who suffered from schizophrenia – was fighting them before he grabbed one of their guns.
Neighbor Christie Apodaca testified she never saw Torres with the gun.
“I saw the officer who was punching him ease up and pull his gun and say I’m going to shoot you and that’s when I backed up from the fence and bolted for the phone,” Apodaca said.
Video taken as part of the investigation shows Apodaca walking investigators through her backyard and showing them how she viewed the incident.
In court, Apodaca also testified she heard three shots fired.
In opening statements, Torres’ family attorneys said Brown, the officer who shot him, should never have been hired in the first place.
“People were being pressured to let in people that would have been rejected under the old policies,” said Randi McGinn, attorney for the Torres family.
According to Torres’ attorneys, Torres had several prior run-ins with police in which his mental state was called into question. In one case, Torres admitted he suffered from schizophrenia.
Attorneys for the Torres family claim the shooting was a use of excessive force. In court Monday, attorneys played audio recordings of police dispatch radio in an attempt to prove that Torres was confused by the incident. Attorneys say officers Brown and Hilger showed up to Torres’ house in plain clothes and an unmarked car. They also claim the officers never told Torres why they were going to arrest him.
“I’m a good guy, this is my house!” screamed Torres in the audio recording.
Torres’ attorneys say officer Brown was only accepted into the department when they lowered standards in the mid-2000s. Attorneys say APD had previously passed on hiring Brown due to his financial issues and Rio Rancho Police Department passed on hiring Brown twice because of attitude problems.
McGinn says that happened under former APD Chief Ray Schultz and former Mayor Marty Chavez’s administration when APD was pushed to hire more officers to bolster their ranks.
The Torres family brought in a former APD Lieutenant, Steve Tate, on Monday to testify to that.
“Seeding marginal candidates that had just barely made it through the process as opposed to trying to identify from those who had made it through what the top tier would be,” said Tate.
The city argued against that, claiming APD didn’t violate any of its own policies or state policies in hiring officers.
“What is your recollection about whether any cadet failed to meet the necessary state standards, but yet still became a certified law enforcement officer?” asked Luis Robles, an attorney representing the city of Albuquerque.
“There was never,” Tate responded.
“Did Chief Schultz ever lower the hiring standard below the standard set by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety?” Luis Robles, attorney for the City of Albuquerque, asked Tate.
“No,” he replied.
Defense attorneys for the city of Albuquerque didn’t say much in court Monday as they declined to present any opening statements.
There is no jury in the Torres civil trial. Ultimately it will be up to the judge to rule on the case. The case could wrap by the end of this week.
The judge on the case, Judge Shannon Bacon, also presided over Kenneth Ellis’ wrongful death suit. She ruled the shooting of the Iraq War veteran was unnecessary. A jury awarded Ellis’ family $10 million. After appealing, the city settled with the family for $8 million.
For Renetta Torres, the opening day was an emotional replay of the day their son was shot day three years ago.
“We can’t bring can bring Christopher back, nothing will ever bring him back,” she said before adding that she hopes the trial – and other APD shooting trials – will help bring about reform in the department.
“Then perhaps all of these young men will not have died in vain,” she said.