Members of Justicia for El Paso held crosses commemorating three men killed by El Paso police while they were having a mental health crisis. They were protesting outside El Paso City Hall on Tuesday. (Justin Hamel/El Paso Matters)
El Paso taxpayers have paid at least $1.7 million since 2016 to defend police officers and the city in four lawsuits stemming from the use of deadly force against people in mental health crisis, according to billing records obtained by El Paso Matters.
The actual figure is probably significantly higher because the city didn’t provide billings and invoices for months or years at a time for two of the cases. El Paso Matters obtained the records through Texas Public Information Act requests to the El Paso City Attorney’s Office in February and July.
The four lawsuits, filed between 2014 and 2018, all involve use of deadly force by El Paso police officers against people in mental health crisis. Three men were killed and one survived multiple gunshot wounds. Each lawsuit alleges that the El Paso Police Department, under the leadership of Police Chief Greg Allen, has poorly trained officers on how to respond to mental health cases.
The money spent on defending police officers in these deadly force cases is an example of misplaced priorities by city leadership, said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights and a member of the Justicia for El Paso Coalition, which seeks police reforms and the removal of Allen as police chief.
He said the City Council increased spending on police and reduced money for other vital services after the four deadly force cases. “It seems that the city rewarded impunity.
In this case, the city gave more money to El Paso Police Department, not acknowledging the major systemic problems that they had at that time and not recognizing that instead of giving them more money, they needed to be more accountable,” he said.
“Our money is being used to defend officers that kill El Pasoans,” Garcia said.
The city’s legal obligations for defending officers are spelled out in a contract with the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association.
City spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta declined to discuss the agreement, saying the contract is available through a Texas Public Information Act request.
The city provided El Paso Matters a copy of the contract on June 29 in response to such a request, but the document ended abruptly in the middle of the fourth page, before the provisions about the city’s obligations to defend officers facing lawsuits.
City officials declined to respond to Garcia’s criticism. “The collective bargaining agreement with the EPMPOA is a negotiated contract approved by the City Council.
We will not engage in a dialogue on the merits of the contract,” Cruz-Acosta said.
Here are the details of the four lawsuits involving deadly force during a mental health crisis.
Daniel Saenz case
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.
He 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. Saenz struggled with the officer and the transport worker, refusing to get up from the ground in the jail sally port. Flores pulled his gun during the struggle and shot Saenz as he lay handcuffed on the ground.
A grand jury declined to indict Flores. He was fired by the El Paso Police Department but later reinstated on appeal.
The El Paso Times obtained video of Saenz’s fatal shooting in 2016. (Warning: the video contains extremely disturbing content.)
In 2014, Saenz’s mother, Roswitha Saenz, sued the city, Police Chief Greg Allen, Flores, the civilian transport worker and his employer.
All defendants except Flores eventually were dismissed from the suit; Roswitha Saenz reached a settlement with the officer for an undisclosed amount in September 2019. She died on Dec. 4, 2019.
City records obtained by El Paso Matters under the Texas Public Information Act show the city paid $394,745.03 to the Denton Navarro law firm of San Antonio and the Darnell law firm of El Paso to defend against the Saenz family lawsuit.
The city’s actual defense expenditures likely were significantly higher than disclosed in response to the El Paso Matters request. The city only provided invoices for the Denton Navarro law firm from 2014 through 2016, even though its attorneys continued to represent the city or its employees through 2019.
The city provided only one invoice for the Darnell law firm, for $62.20 in expenses paid in May 2020. The city’s payment request on that invoice showed that the Darnell firm had been paid more than $289,000 for work on the Saenz case. El Paso Matters included that total in its calculation of the billings in the Saenz case.
No invoices were provided for several outside attorneys listed in court records as representing the city or its employees in the Saenz case.
When asked in March about the discrepancies, Assistant City Attorney Victoria Hayslett said: “We have released all the responsive documents that were provided to us; however, we are working to see if any records were inadvertently not provided to us. I will keep you updated on whether any other records are found or not.” That was her last communication on the discrepancies.
Erik Salas-Sanchez case
Erik Salas-Sanchez, 22, was fatally shot in 2015 by El Paso Police Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez while having a mental health crisis in his mother’s home.
A neighbor of Salas-Sanchez called police when she found him sitting on her couch and told him to leave. He walked across the street to his mother’s house and Gomez and two other police officers arrived there a short time later.
His mother, Celia Sanchez, told the officers that her son had been acting strangely and she believed he needed mental health services, according to court records. Gomez and another officer went inside the home to detain Salas-Sanchez. One officer fired a Taser and Gomez fired his handgun, fatally striking Salas-Sanchez three times in the back, according to an autopsy report.
Gomez was charged with manslaughter and is believed to be the first El Paso police officer to ever be indicted in an on-duty shooting. An El Paso jury acquitted him of the manslaughter charge last year.
Salas-Sanchez’s parents filed a lawsuit in 2017 against Gomez, two other officers and the city of El Paso, alleging that police violated their son’s civil rights. The lawsuit alleges that El Paso police have a long record of using unnecessary force against people with mental illness, and that Allen rarely disciplined officers who employed improper force.
The other officers have since been dismissed from the case, but U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez ruled earlier this year that the suit could proceed against Gomez and the city.
Martinez said Salas-Sanchez’s family had presented extensive evidence that Police Chief Greg Allen had ignored poor training of officers sent to the scenes of mental health crises.
“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.”
Trial in the Salas-Sanchez lawsuit was originally set for May 26 but has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. No new trial date has been set.
Billing records provided by the city to El Paso Matters show that the city has spent $1.04 million on outside legal counsel so far, including more than $740,000 to the Denton Navarro law firm in San Antonio and $195,000 to the Darnell law firm in El Paso. The remainder of the money, just under $100,000, went to the Windle Hood law firm in El Paso.
Daniel Ramirez case
Daniel Antonio Ramirez, 30, died in 2015. His mother, Maria, called 911 to report that her son was suicidal, according to court records. Officer Ruben Escajeda was the first officer to respond and found Daniel Ramirez in the back yard attempting to hang himself from a basketball goal, the records show.
Daniel Ramirez had both hands on the rope around his neck and his tiptoes were touching the ground, according to the lawsuit his parents filed in 2017. Escajeda fired a Taser that struck Daniel Ramirez in the chest and stomach, causing his body to go limp, the lawsuit alleges. Escajeda removed the noose and other officers tried to resuscitate Daniel Ramirez, but he died after being taken to a hospital.
The case is scheduled to be tried before U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama in January 2021.
City records provided to El Paso Matters show that the city has spent just over $200,000 on outside counsel in this case, but those billing records appear to be incomplete.
The city provided no billing records between September 2018 and February 2020, although court records show significant activity during that time. Hayslett, the assistant city attorney, said she’d look into the discrepancy in March but has not provided any updates.
Billing records that have been provided show that just over $130,000 was paid to the Denton Navarro firm in San Antonio and just over $70,000 to the Darnell law firm in El Paso.
Francisco Ramirez case
Francisco Ramirez, 32, was shot and wounded in 2016 by El Paso Police Officer Leon Fonseca. According to a lawsuit brought by Ramirez in 2018, his wife called 911 to report him as suicidal after they had an argument.
Fonseca was sent to Ramirez’s house. The lawsuit says the officer went through a gate into the back yard 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 throat and asked Fonseca to lower his weapon and leave.
Ramirez’s brother told Fonseca multiple times that Francisco was mentally ill. The brother asked if he could talk to Francisco in an attempt to de-escalate the situation but the officer refused, according to the lawsuit.
Fonseca opened fire on Ramirez from about 18 feet away and then pursued him as he 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 suit.
Ramirez was arrested and charged with aggravated assault against a public servant. No trial date has yet been set on his criminal charge. His lawsuit won’t go to trial until after conclusion of the criminal case, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone has ruled.
Billing records provided to El Paso Matters show that the city has paid about $118,000 to outside counsel in its lawsuit defense. Just over $92,000 has been paid to the Denton Navarro law firm in San Antonio, with the remainder going to the Darnell law firm in El Paso.
Disclosures: Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit, attorneys representing the parents of Erik Salas-Sanchez and Daniel Ramirez in their lawsuits against the city of El Paso, also represent El Paso Matters founder Robert Moore in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. Coyle is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters. A partner in the Windle Hood law firm, which has represented the city in one of the lawsuits in this story, has provided legal assistance and financial support for El Paso Matters. That partner has not been involved in the Salas-Sanchez lawsuit.
Author: Robert Moore
Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. He spent most of his career at the El Paso Times, serving in a variety of leadership roles. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership, the James Madison Award from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, the Jack Douglas Award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership from the Texas Press Association. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Association. As a freelance journalist, Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on the border by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.