Shot in the back: Police violence in Albuquerque

In Albuquerque, Stephen and Renetta Torres, whose son was shot by a police officer, take hope from a cop’s murder trial.

One day in April 2011, Stephen and Renetta Torres rushed home after receiving a call from their neighbours about a large police presence – mobile crime lab, SWAT team, armoured cars – at their Albuquerque, New Mexico, residence.

The police were looking for their 27-year-old son, Christopher, who had been home on his own. The officers claimed that they had come to serve an arrest warrant on Christopher about a road rage incident months earlier.

Christopher, who suffered from schizophrenia, refused to speak to the officers, so they moved in on him, jumping a fence and entering the Torres’ backyard. According to court documents, from that point, only a few minutes elapsed before Christopher was shot in the back three times by CJ Brown, a plainclothed police officer at the scene.

They accused Christopher of taking control of Brown’s gun, but a judge in a civil suit later ruled that the story told by Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officers didn’t hold water, awarding a $6 million judgment in favour of the Torres family. Brown was never disciplined over the incident, however, and he remains on the police force.

Since 2010, the APD has shot more than 40 people. Twenty-seven of the victims died. Yet there has been very little punishment meted out for those incidents. An investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in early 2014 found that the APD “engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force, including the use of unreasonable deadly force”.

After the March 16, 2014, shooting of a homeless man named James Boyd by an off-duty cop was captured on a police body camera, the city’s hand was forced. The officer who shot Boyd, Keith Sandy, as well as one of his colleagues, Dominique Perez, are currently on trial for murder.

Fault Lines spoke to Christopher Torres’ parents Stephen and Renetta about their son’s death and the overly aggressive behaviour of police officers in Albuquerque. 

Fault Lines: Before everything that happened with Christopher, did you have an idea of what was actually going on with the police in Albuquerque?

Renetta: I am ashamed to admit that I was probably one of those individuals who, you know, you’re watching the news and [the police] are very convincing that [the victims] were armed and they were dangerous, and the officers were in a position where they had no choice but to shoot to kill.

Of course since Christopher’s shooting we went back and did a lot of research, and this is decades-long behaviour by the Albuquerque Police Department. It’s not a small window of the last seven to eight years. It goes back quite a distance. But I didn’t know that. Then you start to look at things a little bit more in depth, and you’re not so quick to take whatever they’re spinning and however they’re feeding the story to you.

The question was: How large was the group, the bad apples? Do they outnumber the good police officers?

by Renetta Torres, mother of APD shooting victim Christopher Torres

Stephen: I’ve always been somewhat of a newshound, and so before this happened with our family, I had heard and I was aware that there were problems in the police department. But like Renetta, I was not aware of the depth of the problems.

Once we started doing the research, I mean, you get to a point where after a while you don’t want to do it any more because you don’t want to hear any more about what’s been going on. I mean the problems our police department has been having over the last 20 to 30 years with insurance fraud and prostitution and drugs within the police department, abuse of steroids.

Renetta: It’s truly disturbing to know that kind of thing is going on in your community with officers that are supposed to protect you and protect the public, and that is not at all as it plays out with what is occurring in the community.

I think the other tragedy is that the good officers were remaining silent, and basically I think that’s just condoning the deeds of the rogue officers. Always the question was: How large was the group, the bad apples? Do they outnumber the good police officers?

Do you actually understand what happened, the circumstances leading to Christopher’s death?

Stephen: We will never know the full story, the whole truth, because the story kept changing. Initially they were saying they were coming just to interview Christopher. And then they said, no, they were coming to arrest him. And then they changed their story back to they were coming out to just question him. There was some alleged road rage incident that we never even got full information about.

But as we understand it, the police officers came to the front door, rang the doorbell, knocked on the door. Nobody answered. And then one of them walked to the side of the house because he maybe wanted to see what was going on. Or maybe he heard something. And yes, that’s when he saw Christopher in the side yard here. And so he approached Christopher and asked him who he was, you know, “Are you Christopher Torres?” Christopher said, “Yes,” and supposedly they said, “We want to talk to you.” Christopher backed up, and I don’t know if the officer thought he was getting ready to run or what he thought, but somehow that gave him justification to jump the fence and rush Christopher and tackle him to the ground.

Christopher is lying face down on the ground, and these officers are apparently trying to handcuff him, and there is a struggle. And then again the story changes: One version of the story is that one of the officer’s handcuffs got loose, and they saw the handcuffs loose on the ground. They thought at one point, he’s got a knife. And then the other story that finally came out is that one of the officers claimed that somehow during the struggle that Christopher had actually managed to get his hand on the officer’s gun and take it out of his holster and gain control of it. How’s he able to do that with two officers on his back? It’s just, you can’t. It’s an incredible story.

But anyway Christopher is faced down on the ground, the two officers are struggling to try and get him handcuffed and at one point, one of the officers may have told him, “You better cooperate, or I’m going to shoot you.” And that’s what they proceeded to do. Officer Brown took his service revolver out and at point blank range, literally with the barrel pressed against Christopher’s back, he fired three shots into Christopher.

Stephen and Renetta Torres lost their son Christopher in 2011 when he was killed in an officer-involved shooting at their Albuquerque residence [Víctor Tadashi Suarez/Al Jazeera]
Stephen and Renetta Torres lost their son Christopher in 2011 when he was killed in an officer-involved shooting at their Albuquerque residence [Víctor Tadashi Suarez/Al Jazeera]

What was Christopher’s funeral like? Was there any simmering anger at the APD there?

Stephen: I don’t think there was a lot of anger. Christopher was well liked. He was a very gentle person. We didn’t realise Christopher had so many friends. The church was packed.

Renetta: The church holds a little over 1,000 people.

Stephen: And it was overflowing. There was certainly a lot of sadness, a lot of bewilderment, wondering how this could have happened.

Renetta: I think that was most of what we were feeling in the days and weeks after Christopher was shot. You just can’t believe it happened. I think that Christopher, his health, his wellbeing and safety was always such a priority for us, and he’s taken in the very place that should be his sanctuary. It was hard.

Can you give us some context about Christopher, his life, his struggles?

Renetta: I think we like to categorise Christopher’s story as being a success. He had a part-time job. He was such a warm and caring individual.

The day he was killed, just minutes before police arrived, he had been across the street visiting some neighbours who are in their 80s. He went to check on them. He’d gone to the grocery store. He’d help them clean their yard. He’d help them clean their pool. And they were the last people to see Christopher alive.

There were people whose lives he had touched that we were not even aware of. But he was very caring. I think he handled his illness with a great deal of grace and dignity.

When did you realise that what happened to Christopher was part of a larger pattern of behaviour by the APD?

Stephen: Those first few weeks we were just in shock, going through the motions of daily life. But a month after Christopher was shot, Alan Gomez was killed, and the circumstances were just so similar – a needless shooting. Alan Gomez was turned around and walking away from police officers when they shot him in the back. That finally woke me up, and I realised we’ve got to try and do something.

Renetta: Mike Gomez [Alan’s father], he certainly, I think, started to bring the community of families that had been affected by APD shootings together. Mike, in all of his grief, seemed to recognise there was a need and a call to action, and he started contacting the family members and saying we’ve got to meet and we’ve got to talk. And the first meeting was held at his home, and there were about 15 families there.

For so long these officers were not facing any consequences. They could pretty much do whatever they wanted and they knew they were not going to face any sanctions.... It's very, very difficult to prosecute or even convict an officer when he's supposedly doing his job. So just to even see them being charged was a major victory for us.

by Stephen Torres

Fifteen families?

Stephen: All sharing similar stories.

That must have been a big surprise for you guys to see that.

Renetta: It was. And their stories were just disturbing. I mean, it was almost too much to bear. I have to tell you for quite a while you’re just fearful after you hear these horrible stories of these families that have lost their loved ones at the hands of these rogue officers. Some of them went back to 2007, 2006. As frightened as you are, you know you’ve got to do something, and there’s strength in numbers. I certainly think that we were bolstered by the other families and we just moved forward.

But Mike Gomez was very pivotal in getting the families together. I think absent Mike Gomez, who knows, we might have at some point kind of come out of this fog we were in. But I think he certainly mobilised us.

So the DOJ coming in must have felt like a positive step. Right?

Renetta: It was huge. It was the culmination of a lot of work, hard work, to get them here. And certainly the report, when it came out was …

Stephen: … scathing. And I didn’t think it would ever happen. When we first started talking about the need to bring the DOJ in here, I thought to myself, “They’re never going to come here.” But they did. A lot of people with a lot of hard work, and a lot of people from all across the country, and even other countries, were sending in emails and responding to our requests to contact DOJ and beg them to come here and look into the situation.

You must have felt vindicated by their conclusions.

Renetta: I think you still find that the community at large feels that these kinds of things can never happen to them. I still think they are among the non-believers that there is a problem with APD, you know, in their gated communities where they feel they are safe and immune from any kind of activity like this. I still think they firmly think there is not a problem.

What did [Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry] say? About five to six months ago after The New Yorker and Rolling Stone articles came out, he was a little annoyed because it was bringing a lot of negative publicity to Albuquerque. His view on it is Albuquerque, New Mexico, is such a beautiful place, and yet these families need to let it go and stop bringing all this negativity to focus on the city. You’re just astounded at sometimes how uncaring, unfeeling this mayor is. It doesn’t affect his world. So as long as it doesn’t affect his world, it’s not a problem.

You were in court on Monday for Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez’s trial? How did that make you feel to see APD officers on trial for murder?

Stephen: It was, in a way, gratifying because we’ve worked so hard to see something like this finally happen. I have almost given up hope that any criminal charges are ever going to be filed against the officers in my son’s case. I mean, we’ve been pushing for that and asking for that for four years now and we’ve been told, “Be patient, be patient, we’re working on it.” I think other family members have similarly become frustrated and have given up hope that anything is going to happen with their cases.

So just to even see officers being prosecuted and being held accountable and being made to stand up there and having to defend themselves is a major victory for us – because for so long these officers were not facing any consequences. They could pretty much do whatever they wanted and they knew they were not going to face any sanctions. I’m not being naive. We know what the law is. It’s very very difficult to prosecute or even convict an officer when he’s supposedly doing his job. So just to even see them being charged was a major major victory for us.

Source: Al Jazeera