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Judge rejects El Paso police trainer as expert witness in deadly force lawsuit, cites ‘flawed methodology’

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Over the past two decades, the El Paso Police Department has paid Robert Taylor more than $1 million as a consultant and trainer. But a federal judge earlier this year said city lawyers could not use Taylor as an expert witness in a deadly force lawsuit because he incorrectly applied the law in determining what level of force was permissible.

At issue is how to determine whether an officer’s actions in using deadly force were “objectively reasonable.” The city of El Paso sought to use Dallas-based Taylor, their longtime police trainer and consultant, as an expert witness in a lawsuit stemming from the 2015 death of a man who was shot with a taser by a police officer while attempting to hang himself.

U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama refused to allow Taylor’s testimony because his view of objectively reasonable behavior in police use of deadly force was far more permissive than what has been allowed in past court rulings. He said Taylor’s opinion on El Paso Police Officer Ruben Escajeda’s use of force, as presented in both his report and deposition testimony, must be excluded based on its “fundamentally flawed methodology.”

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“Taylor’s report and deposition testimony strongly suggest that he is misapplying the objective reasonableness standard. To begin, in trying to explain the standard in layman’s terms, Taylor analogizes the standard to the idiom of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’” Guaderrama wrote in his March ruling barring Taylor as an expert witness.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the family of Daniel Antonio Ramirez, 30, who was tased by Escajeda on June 23, 2015, after the officer saw Ramirez clutching a rope that was tied around his neck and fastened to a basketball hoop in the family’s backyard during a suicide attempt. Ramirez was declared dead a short time later.

Lynn Coyle, an attorney representing Ramirez’s family, said Taylor’s view of the law would give police almost unrestricted power to use deadly force.

“Mr. Taylor testified that the use of force standard is like ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ — in other words, an officer has no limits on whenever s/he wants to use force. In applying the wrong standard, Mr. Taylor reached the conclusion that it was proper for Officer Escajeda to immediately tase Danny even though Danny was unarmed and helpless. It is disturbing that this same expert has been hired to train El Paso police officers over many years — including on use-of-force policies,” Coyle said.

Guadarrama recently ruled that the case will go to a jury trial in August 2022.

The lawsuit alleges that Escajeda deprived Ramirez of his constitutional rights when he used excessive force against Ramirez. It claims the city was “directly responsible” because the El Paso 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 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 city, represented by the Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech firm in San Antonio and the Jim Darnell law firm in El Paso, hired Taylor as an expert witness to testify, in part, regarding El Paso police training, standards and policies.

Attorneys Coyle, Chris Benoit and Ray Velarde, who represent the Ramirez family, argued that Taylor improperly relied on Escajeda’s subjective beliefs and fears when he decided use of force was objectively reasonable. They also claimed Taylor repeatedly accepted Escajeda’s subjective beliefs as true and did not test whether they were objectively reasonable under the facts and circumstances Escajeda was confronted with during the incident.

Guaderrama agreed, saying Taylor’s interpretation of “objectively reasonable” use of deadly force did not comply with a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case, Graham v. Conner.

City officials and Taylor declined El Paso Matters’ request for comment.

In his ruling, Guadarrama said the Supreme Court has held that “(t)he officer’s reasonableness in using force — deadly or non-deadly — is analyzed under an objective standard ‘in light of the facts and circumstances confronting the officer, without regard to his or her underlying intent or motivation.’”

Guadarrama also said the reasonableness of an officer’s conduct depends on the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.

Escajeda, in his deposition, said he mistakenly heard 911 dispatchers say the call was in response to a “suicidal subject with a weapon” — and the misunderstanding ended up altering his subsequent conduct and interpretation of his observations on scene. Dispatch recordings include no mention of a weapon.

In Guadarrama’s decision to exclude Taylor’s testimony, he wrote that the “‘reasonable officer standard does not mean (courts) give the challenged officer’s self-serving testimony more weight’ than testimony of other witnesses or accept his subjective beliefs. That is because an officer’s subjective beliefs, however induced, are irrelevant.”

“Instead, the proper focus is upon whether another officer confronting the same objective facts could have also reasonably concluded that he or another person ‘was in danger at the moment of the threat that resulted’ in the use of force,” he said.

Taylor’s deposition and report show that he relied on subjective information Escajeda provided and facts that were not available to Escajeda at the time of the tasing, which may have influenced his use of force.

Disclosure: Attorneys Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit represent El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Coyle is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.

Cover photo: El Paso Police Academy instructors teach recruits in August 2017. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Police Department)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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