7:14 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from city officials, the family of Erik Salas Sanchez and the Border Network for Human Rights.
The El Paso City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to pay $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged poor leadership by Police Chief Greg Allen led to the 2015 shooting death of an El Paso man in the midst of a mental health crisis.
The settlement agreement was reached days before the lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial in U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama’s court on April 7. The lawsuit was filed by the family of Erik Salas Sanchez, 22, who was fatally shot inside his mother’s home on April 29, 2015, by El Paso Police Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez.
Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit, El Paso attorneys representing Salas Sanchez’s family, said the move to settle the lawsuit is unprecedented in El Paso.
“From our perspective, it’s a very important step in recognizing what happened and trying to make things right and trying to move forward with better practices,” Coyle said.
Salas Sanchez’s mother is still devastated by the night she witnessed the death of her son in her home.
“Hopefully this serves so that no one goes through the pain that we are going through. I don’t wish that on anyone,” said an emotional Celia Sanchez Wednesday. “Hopefully they take the measures they need to take so that no one goes through this because we will never be the same. We have to learn to live with this pain and everyone in the world that has had to go through this understands (that).”
Sanchez said she wishes she could stand in front of the officers who were in her home that evening and ask them how their own children are doing since she will never be able to see her son again because of what happened.
City officials issued a news release Wednesday that fell short of admitting wrongdoing on the part of the city and police department.
“We have reviewed the totality of the circumstances and we believe it is in the best interest of all parties to resolve this case. We are committed to move forward and begin the healing process for all involved,” City Attorney Karla Nieman said in a prepared statement.
Neiman said “the settlement is not an ‘admission or indication of wrongdoing’ by our officers or the organization. All members of City staff have taken this as an opportunity to learn and improve the public-safety services we provide for our community.”
As of October 2021, the city had spent more than $1 million on outside legal counsel on this lawsuit, according to documents obtained by El Paso Matters through the Texas Public Information Act.
Coyle said the trial, in which Chief Allen was expected to testify about the inner workings of the Police Department, would have lasted at least five weeks.
“Obviously, there’s an expense involved in that from the taxpayer perspective,” she said. “So I do think that the city was also acting pragmatically (when it) decided to try to resolve the case and in fact voted to resolve the case.”
Allen, in the statement released by the city, said he understands the City Council’s decision to settle the lawsuit.
“The City continues to reform public safety policies and procedures in the interest of our community,” Allen said.
In March 2020, U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez ruled that the Salas Sanchez family had provided enough evidence of wrongdoing by El Paso police to put the lawsuit before a jury.
“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.”
The case was moved to Guaderrama’s court after Martinez died last year.
A jury would have decided 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 incidents; and failed to train officers on how to handle individuals suffering from a mental health crisis.
The lawsuit alleged 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.
Coyle said the Salas Sanchez family was ready to try the case.
“We think that the trial would have been an important opportunity for the community to take a close look at the department practices, but we also feel that with the settlement, the city is already doing that, or at least showing a willingness to really take a hard look at police practices,” Coyle said.
In June 2020, the City Council passed a resolution in response to nationwide unrest over police brutality that was sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
The city launched a task force in October 2021 to execute a comprehensive plan that does not mention an effort to reform the Police Department, but rather, seeks to encourage “the elimination of racial disparities and improve law enforcement interactions.”
The task force has been meeting with the community including members of the Border Network for Human Rights to develop recommendations on how the Police Department can improve areas such as disciplinary practices and community accountability.
Samantha Sherman, coordinator for BNHR’s El Paso Police Department Accountability Task Force, said the settlement in the case is a big step toward bringing justice to the family, but more work needs to be done.
“We’ve been working towards greater oversight and accountability in regards to the police department. The closer the city works with the community, the more it continues to make the community feel safe,” Sherman said.
The police department also launched a crisis intervention team after City Rep. Alexsandra Annello pushed for funding for the program in 2017 following multiple lawsuits alleging excessive force against people suffering a mental health crisis. The lawsuits included the Salas Sanchez case.
Crisis intervention 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.
At the time the program launched in 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 police department has additionally increased training, increased the use of body-worn cameras through state, federal and local funding, and expanded the availability of use of force data for public review.
“The city has been taking steps from the moment this lawsuit was filed — within months — of being filed, to address some of the issues that were raised by what happened to Eric,” Benoit said. “That it’s obviously ongoing and there’s other people advocating for that, but that is something that happened after the filing of this lawsuit.”
Disclosure: Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit have previously represented El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the federal government. They are financial supporters of El Paso Matters.