While two deadly force lawsuits against El Paso police and the city have been settled, two others remain pending, each involving the use of deadly force by police officers against people in a mental health crisis.
The toll of the interactions with the accused El Paso police officers resulted in three men being killed and one who survived multiple gunshot wounds.
Each lawsuit alleges that the El Paso Police Department, under the leadership of Police Chief Greg Allen, has poorly trained its officers on how to respond to mental health cases. The four lawsuits were filed between 2014 and 2018.
The city most recently reached a $1.2 million settlement with the family of Erik Salas Sanchez, 22, who El Paso Police Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez fatally shot multiple times in April 2015. Salas Sanchez was shot inside his mother’s house.
Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit, the El Paso attorneys representing Salas Sanchez’s family, said the city’s move to settle the lawsuit is unprecedented in El Paso because it is rare for judges to allow families to proceed against municipalities in excessive force lawsuits.
Coyle said the settlement was a very important step in recognizing what happened and the city trying to make things right.
Here is a recap of the other three lawsuits.
Daniel Ramirez case set for trial in August
Coyle and Benoit are also representing the family of Daniel Antonio Ramirez, 30, who died in 2015 after his mother, Maria, called 911 to report that her son was suicidal.
Ramirez was tased by El Paso Police Officer Ruben Escajeda, the first officer on the scene, 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, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Escajeda deprived Ramirez of his constitutional rights when he used excessive force against Ramirez.
U.S. District Judge David Guadarrama’s 108-page ruling in August 2021 denied most of the city’s motion for summary judgment that, if granted, could have ended the lawsuit. It was the second such ruling within an 18-month timeframe by a federal judge against the city and El Paso Police Department in lawsuits stemming from deaths at the hands of officers.
The decision will allow a jury to decide whether Escajeda and the city deprived Ramirez of his constitutional rights.
Ramirez’s family also alleges that Escajeda used excessive force against Ramirez and that the city was “directly responsible” because the police department, under Allen’s leadership, 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 incidents.
“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 wrote in his ruling.
The lawsuit, seeking unspecified monetary damages, is tentatively scheduled to go to a jury trial in August.
“At this time, we do not know whether the city is interested in reaching an out of court resolution, but regardless, we will be ready to try this case in August and give the Ramirez family the opportunity to seek justice for the death of their son,” Coyle said.
Court documents show the city is appealing Guadarrama’s ruling that, in part, denied qualified immunity for Escajeda. Qualified immunity protects a government official, including police officers, from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.
Francisco Ramirez case at risk of dismissal
A pending lawsuit filed by Francisco Ramirez, who was shot and wounded in 2016 by El Paso Police Officer Leon Fonseca, is in jeopardy of being dismissed after Ramirez died unexpectedly in September, his lawyer said.
“The court is now waiting to hear if a representative of his estate would like to continue the lawsuit on his behalf,” said his attorney Joseph Veith, who filed the lawsuit in 2018 at the request of Ramirez, who was 32 years old at the time of the shooting.
Court documents show that if a family member does not continue the lawsuit it will be dismissed in May. The lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount of monetary damages.
According to the lawsuit, Ramirez’s wife called 911 to report him as suicidal after they had an argument.
Officer Fonseca was sent to Ramirez’s house. The lawsuit says the officer went through a gate into the backyard without making any attempt to knock on the door and notify residents of his presence. Fonseca saw that Ramirez was holding a box cutter and took cover behind a dumpster about 18 feet from Ramirez, the lawsuit says. The officer pulled his gun and began shouting orders at Ramirez, who held the box cutter to his own throat and asked Fonseca to lower his weapon and leave.
Fonseca opened fire on Ramirez from about 18 feet away and then pursued as Ramirez sought cover behind a van parked in the yard, according to the lawsuit. Fonseca fired again as Ramirez lay on the ground, striking him in the face, the lawsuit alleges. Ramirez survived the shooting but was left with significant disabilities, according to the lawsuit.
Ramirez was arrested and charged with aggravated assault against a public servant. No trial date had been set on his criminal charge. U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone ruled that the civil lawsuit would not go to trial until after the conclusion of the criminal case.
Daniel Saenz case settled in 2019
Daniel Saenz, 37, was shot to death by police officer Jose Flores in 2013 while he lay on the ground outside the Downtown jail with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Saenz had told grocery store workers that he was feeling paranoid, so police and Emergency Medical Services took him to a hospital, where he allegedly assaulted patients, staff and an off-duty police officer.
Saenz was arrested and taken to the Downtown jail, where he suffered a cut to his head while in custody. Flores and a civilian transport worker were taking Saenz out of the jail for medical treatment when Saenz was shot. During the transport, Saenz struggled with the officer and the transport worker, refusing to get up from the ground in the jail sally port. Flores pulled out his gun during the struggle and shot Saenz as he lay handcuffed on the ground.
In 2014, Saenz’s mother, Roswitha Saenz, sued the city of El Paso, police chief Allen, Flores, the civilian transport worker and his employer. All defendants except Flores eventually were dismissed from the suit.
City Council in 2018 rejected a settlement with Roswitha Saenz because the city was no longer a party in the lawsuit.
Roswitha Saenz reached a $30,000 settlement with the officer in September 2019, according to documents obtained by El Paso Matters through the Texas Public Information Act. Documents show the city issued the check that August. She died in December 2019.
This story has been updated with details of Roswitha Saenz’s settlement agreement.
Disclosure: Attorneys Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit represented El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. They are financial supporters of El Paso Matters.