Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions that could be disturbing to some readers.
A federal judge ruled last month that an excessive force lawsuit against an El Paso Police officer will continue and be decided by a jury. The ruling marks the second time in 18 months that a federal judge issued a ruling against the city and El Paso Police Department in lawsuits stemming from deaths at the hands of officers.
U.S. District Judge David Guadarrama’s 108-page ruling in August denied most of the city’s motion for summary judgment that, if granted, could have ended a lawsuit by the family of Daniel Antonio Ramirez, 30. Ramirez was tased by El Paso Police Officer Ruben Escajeda on June 23, 2015, after he saw Ramirez clutching a rope tied around his neck that was fastened to a basketball hoop in the family’s backyard during a suicide attempt.
The decision allows a jury to decide whether Escajeda and the city deprived Ramirez of his constitutional rights. The lawsuit alleges that poor leadership by Police Chief Greg Allen was responsible for policies that led to the death of Ramirez and other people with mental health issues.
“The district court’s careful decision clearing the way for Danny’s family to take his case to trial provides a road map to the problems of policies, training and discipline in the El Paso Police Department that led to Danny’s tragic death,” said Lynn Coyle, an El Paso attorney representing the Ramirez family.
Ramirez’s family alleges that Escajeda used excessive force against Ramirez and that the city was “directly responsible” because the Police Department, under the leadership of Chief Greg Allen, failed to institute proper procedures to ensure officers employ appropriate tactics when dealing with people suspected of suffering from mental illness. The lawsuit also alleges the Police Department 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 Court concludes that a reasonable jury could find that the City had an inadequate training policy on how EPPD officers can respond to situations involving mental health crises, that its inadequacies were a moving force behind Ramirez’s death, and that Chief Allen was deliberately indifferent in implementing an appropriate training policy,” Guadarrama said in his ruling.
How to find help
If you have thoughts of taking your own life, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255
The trial in the Ramirez family lawsuit is set for August 2022.
Coyle also represents the family of Erik Salas-Sanchez, 22, who was fatally shot by El Paso Police Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez on April 29, 2015, during a mental health crisis.
In that case, a jury will also decide whether Salas-Sanchez’s death may be traced to poor training and discipline standards Allen set, according to U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez’s 132-page ruling in March 2020.
Martinez denied most of the city’s motion for summary judgment in the Salas-Sanchez case that, if granted, could have ended the lawsuit. Some of the findings mirror those in the Ramirez court ruling, including: whether the El Paso Police Department failed to institute proper procedures to ensure officers employ appropriate tactics when dealing with persons suspected of suffering from mental illness; if the police failed to properly investigate and discipline officers involved in excessive use of force; and if the department failed to train officers on how to handle individuals suffering from a mental health crisis.
The Salas-Sanchez trial is set to go to trial in April 2022. Martinez died in February and the case is now in Guaderrama’s court.
Choosing not to implement a crisis intervention team
The ruling in the Ramirez case, in part, upholds the family’s argument that Allen made a policy decision to not implement a crisis intervention team program despite multiple recommendations. Guaderrama ruled that a reasonable jury could find a crisis intervention team may have helped prevent Ramirez’s tasing and death.
Crisis intervention teams pair a mental health expert and a police officer on calls responding to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. The teams are designed to improve police officers’ ability to safely intervene, link individuals to mental health services and divert them from the criminal justice system when appropriate.
One such recommendation was made in 2014 — about 17 months before Escajeda tased Ramirez — when Allen received a detailed review from a non-profit organization called Disability Rights Texas. That review followed an in-depth investigation by Disability Rights Texas of an incident where officers allegedly used excessive force against another individual in a mental health crisis. In that case, “the EPPD had the opportunity to consider or take other more appropriate measures short and prior to the use of force, to deescalate the situation and failed to do so” according to court documents. It’s unclear if the officers were reprimanded or cleared of the allegations.
According to court documents, Allen testified that “the EPPD ultimately created the CIT (crisis intervention team) program in 2017 because of ‘the perception by certain members of the public that the the department was ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues.’”
Allen added that “this had been a concern over the years from various members of the community and City Council members, not only on my term, but during past administrations of the Police Department.”
Prior to the program launch at the beginning of 2019, El Paso was the only large Texas city without an established CIT. Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Houston have long-established teams and programs.
“The record shows that a reasonable jury could conclude that Chief Allen was aware of the need for CIT units but chose not to implement them. … It is even undisputed that before he became Chief of the EPPD in December 2007, Chief Allen had already been put on notice that city leaders and other members of the public had a long-standing concern that the ‘department was ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues,’” Guaderrama wrote in his ruling.
City and El Paso police officials declined El Paso Matters’ request for comment.
June 23, 2015
Ramirez’s mother Maria Ramirez called 911 on the evening of June 23, 2015, and said her son was in the process of preparing to hang himself from the basketball goal in the backyard of their home near Ysleta Middle School. Dispatch called out to the El Paso Police Department to respond to a suicide in progress, according to court documents.
Court documents show the mother made no mention of her son having a weapon when she relayed the emergency to the EPPD officers and 911 dispatchers. Dispatchers did not say that Ramirez had a weapon.
“Escajeda, then a police officer employed by the EPPD, responded to the call and arrived at the house alone. Upon arrival to the Ramirez home, Escajeda did not announce himself to anyone at the house to talk with Plaintiffs, but instead went directly to the backyard,” according to court documents. “As he approached the backyard, he drew his service weapon. Once in the backyard, Escajeda shined his flashlight on Ramirez and saw him with a rope around his neck that was connected to a basketball hoop.”
As he got closer to Ramirez, Escajeda reportedly saw Ramirez staring forward with his hands clenched with tight fists around the part of the rope that was around his neck. Escajeda then repeatedly ordered him to show him his hands. After perceiving that his verbal commands were unsuccessful, Escajeda approached Ramirez within approximately five feet.
“Escajeda then holstered his service weapon, drew out and deployed his taser on Ramirez. During the tasing, Ramirez’s body tensed, and Escajeda heard a ‘crunch’ and saw Ramirez squeeze his fists even harder. After tasing Ramirez, Escajeda removed the rope around his neck and got him down from the basketball goal. Escajeda felt a faint pulse; however, Ramirez later arrived to the emergency room at Del Sol Medical Center at 11:06 p.m., and was pronounced dead at 11:24 p.m.,” court documents show.
Court documents show Escajeda said he mistakenly heard from dispatch that there was a “a suicidal subject with a weapon” involved and that he may have misapprehended the dispatch because “[a]s the dispatchers were giving information, other officers were on the radio cutting the dispatcher off to the point of a lot of radio traffic being generated.”
Escajeda said the misunderstanding of the dispatcher ended up altering his subsequent conduct and interpretation of his observations on scene.
The jury will also consider whether Ramirez was unconscious during the encounter with Escajeda, which may determine whether the use of force contributed to Ramirez’s death.
Court documents show coroner Dr. Mario Rascon determined that Ramirez died by hanging and that the taser did not contribute to his death because he was unconscious at the time of the incident. Expert witnesses for Ramirez’s family challenge Rascon’s finding.
Court documents show Allen testified that Escajeda responded within policy and acted appropriately.
“Indeed, Chief Allen went further, also testifying that ‘in this case, I feel Officer Escajeda acted very appropriately and he performed in a professional level that I think is exemplary of many officers in this department,’” court documents show.
Failure to investigate and discipline officers
Court documents show that a jury will hear evidence that in police investigations into allegations of excessive force, the Police Department does not separate police officers to prevent them from communicating. The department also investigates all officer-involved shootings as assaults on the officer, thereby “identifying the shooting officer as the victim and the deceased or person shot as the suspect” and fails to consider the testimonies of non-officer witnesses who contradict the officers’ versions of events, court records show.
One of the examples involves the Police Department’s failure to discipline former Officer Jorge Gonzalez in an excessive force case despite Gonzalez’s “notorious history of misconduct.”
Gonzalez was indicted by an El Paso grand jury after an incident when he was off-duty April 1, 2010, where Gonzalez shot Andres Cortez after a traffic incident, paralyzing him from the neck down. The Police Department’s shooting review board determined Gonzalez acted within policy.
An El Paso grand jury considered the same incident and entered a two-count indictment for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The case was dismissed in 2017.
Court documents show that shortly after the indictment, Allen made public comments that he wanted to “reassure the department, the personnel and the officers on the street, that we will stand behind them regardless of the circumstances, or the findings of a grand jury.”
Allen testified that he subsequently excluded the El Paso District Attorney’s Office from police shooting scenes because he was “outraged” at the indictment and that the DA’s office did not concur with the Police Department’s findings of the same incident, according to court records.
“A reasonable jury could consider the evidence and conclude that Chief Allen excluded the DA’s Office to insulate EPPD officers from scrutiny and the possibility of receiving consequences for their actions,” Guaderrama wrote in his ruling.
Cover photo: Daniel Ramirez, courtesy of the Ramirez family.
Disclosure: Attorney Lynn Coyle is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters and represents the company’s CEO, Robert Moore, in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against Department of Homeland Security agencies.