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UPDATE: The trial for this lawsuit has been postponed because of COVID-19. District Judge Philip Martinez has said he will set a new trial date sometime after May 31.
A jury should decide whether a 2015 police shooting death of an El Paso man in a mental health crisis may be traced to poor training and discipline standards set by Police Chief Greg Allen, a federal judge ruled this week.
U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez’s 132-page ruling on Tuesday denied most of the city’s motion for summary judgment that could have ended a lawsuit by the family of Erik Salas-Sanchez, 22, who was fatally shot on April 29, 2015, by El Paso Police Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez.
The decision clears the way for a jury to decide whether the Police Department failed to institute proper procedures to ensure officers employ appropriate tactics when dealing with persons suspected of suffering from mental illness; failed to properly investigate and discipline officers involved in excessive use of force; and failed to train officers on how to handle individuals suffering from a mental health crisis.
The trial currently is set to begin May 26.
The lawsuit alleges that Allen, El Paso’s police chief since 2008, created a climate of near-impunity for officers who use excessive force and ignored repeated warnings that the department had dangerous policies for dealing with people in mental health crises.
“The record reflects that throughout his tenure, Chief Allen has been aware of various shortcomings regarding EPPD responses to mental health crises and the use of force. It would appear fundamental to even the most casual of observers that these concerns might be best addressed through proper training,” Martinez wrote in his ruling. “When evidence exists that EPPD officers are inadequately trained, it would seem to fall on the Chief of the EPPD to improve training programs. A reasonable jury could determine that Chief Allen not only failed to improve training programs but did so despite the clear risk of constitutional violations that failing to train poses.”
Lynn Coyle, an El Paso attorney representing Salas Sanchez’s family, said: “This careful and thorough decision significantly advances the family’s goal of holding the city accountable for violating the law in the shooting death of their son, Erik.”
City officials did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling. Gomez and the city are defendants in the lawsuit. Gomez is believed to be the first El Paso police officer to ever be indicted in an on-duty shooting. An El Paso jury acquitted him of the manslaughter charge last year.
A neighbor of Salas-Sanchez called police in April 2015 when she found him sitting on her couch and told him to leave. He walked across the street to his mother’s house and Gomez and two other police officers arrived there a short time later.
His mother, Celia Sanchez, told the officers that her son had been acting strangely and she believed he needed mental health services, according to court records. Gomez and another officer went inside the home to detain Salas-Sanchez. One officer fired a Taser and Gomez fired his handgun, fatally striking Salas-Sanchez three times in the back, according to an autopsy report.
Salas-Sanchez’s parents filed a lawsuit in 2017 alleging that police violated their son’s civil rights. The lawsuit alleges that El Paso police have a long record of using unnecessary force against people with mental illness, and that Allen rarely disciplined officers who employed improper force.
The Supreme Court has made it difficult for people to sue cities for actions of their employees, saying that such lawsuits must prove that a city’s policies or customs were responsible for alleged wrongdoing. Salas-Sanchez’s family has presented enough evidence to meet that standard, Martinez ruled.
Although he is not named as a defendant, Allen’s leadership is the focal point of the lawsuit.
In weighing the city’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss the lawsuit, Martinez was required to interpret the evidence in a way most favorable to the plaintiffs, Salas-Sanchez’s parents. In doing so, he repeatedly came back to policies and customs created by Allen.
- “The evidence put forth suggests that Chief Allen is deeply loyal to his officers, and believes that he has an obligation to support them when they are accused of wrongdoing. Simultaneously, Chief Allen is responsible for investigating any accusations and disciplining his officers when they have in fact done wrong. It is possible that where Chief Allen succeeds in supporting his officers, he fails in disciplining them.”
- “After due consideration, the Court is of the opinion that a reasonable jury could conclude that Chief Allen’s failure to adequately investigate or discipline EPPD officers involved in shootings was a moving force of Mr. Salas-Sanchez’s death.”
- “A reasonable jury could consider this evidence and decide that Chief Allen has a history of unwarranted leniency for EPPD officers involved in the use of deadly force.”
- “Accordingly, the Court concludes that a reasonable jury could determine that Chief Allen’s investigative and disciplinary approach to similar instances of police misconduct helps insulate EPPD officers from facing consequences for the excessive use of force.”
- “When considered in their totality, and taken in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, these facts are sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude that Chief Allen created a policy of failing to investigate or discipline EPPD officers accused of using excessive force …”
- “One could conclude that when faced with an officer-involved shooting, Chief Allen would communicate to the EPPD that either (1) the EPPD officer had done nothing wrong, or (2) the EPPD officer’s actions only warranted a minimal punishment. Accordingly, it is not hard to imagine that Defendant Officers Gomez and Rivera may have used force because Chief Allen failed to reinforce the right behavior through discipline.”
Disclosure: Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit, the attorneys representing the parents of Erik Salas-Sanchez in their lawsuit against the city of El Paso, also represent El Paso Matters founder Robert Moore in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.