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Lawsuit claims El Paso police used excessive force against mentally ill man

El Paso Times - 2/6/2018

Feb. 06--Another lawsuit has been filed claiming the El Paso Police Department and city officials have failed to create policies addressing officers' use of excessive force when dealing with people suffering from mental health issues.

This is at least the second lawsuit filed against an El Paso police officer and the city of El Paso arguing that a pattern exists within the department in which excessive force is used against people with known mental health issues.

The latest lawsuit was filed by Francisco Ramirez, who was shot by Officer Leon Fonseca at a Central El Paso home Nov. 5, 2016. Fonseca was responding to a report of a suicidal person when he shot and seriously wounded Ramirez.

"This lawsuit represents an important step toward bringing my client justice for the wrongful shooting and the associated catastrophic injuries he suffered in 2016 when he was gunned down while running in fear from an EPPD officer," said Ramirez's lawyer, Joseph Robert Veith. "Moreover, the shootings of the mentally ill by the El Paso police should alarm all of us in our community."

He added, "Until now, there has been little to no accountability of officers using excessive force, particularly against this class of persons -- that being the mentally ill. We hope this lawsuit will stop the use of deadly force against our most vulnerable citizens."

El Paso Police Department officials declined to comment, stating the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Ramirez filed the lawsuit against Fonseca and the city Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court. The lawsuit does not list a monetary amount being sought.

Veith said some of the damages being sought are for Ramirez's current medical bills and the future cost of treatment tied to the shooting.

Fonseca is accused in the lawsuit of violating Ramirez's civil rights by using excessive force and entering the backyard of a home in the 100 block of South Glenwood Street in Central El Paso without a warrant or probable cause.

Fonseca, who had been with the department for more than nine years at the time of the shooting, was placed on administrative leave immediately afterward, pending an investigation.

Police officials did not immediately respond to questions regarding Fonseca's current status with the department.

More than nine cases involving El Paso police officers shooting or killing mentally ill people are highlighted in the lawsuit.

"It has become clear that there are a number of very serious and troubling shootings against the mentally ill by the El Paso Police Department," Veith said. "The facts surrounding these shootings are highly questionable and demand accountability. I listed about nine or 10 cases (in the lawsuit), and the facts in each of those cases alone represent a serious problem. They all involve the shooting of the mentally ill."

The lawsuit also heavily focuses on the alleged failure of the Police Department and city officials to have policies, practices and customs in place to train officers to deal with mentally ill people and how to de-escalate a situation instead of turning to the use of excessive force.

"In this case, the police were on notice of a suicidal subject, my client. They arrived at the home with prior knowledge of this," Veith said. "The common theme between all of these cases is the issue of handling callouts involving mental ill people where the police already knew of mental health issues. My client represents one of the many cases that are ongoing right now."

It also claims that the department under police Chief Greg Allen, who is not named as a defendant in the case, has a history of failing to discipline officers involved in excessive force incidents.

"We need a system in place that properly evaluates and judges whether an officer acted properly or improperly when using deadly force," Veith said. "We need a neutral, fair board to make that determination. What we have in El Paso right now are numbers that suggest every shooting a police officer is involved in is justified regardless of what the facts of that case may be, and that is troubling."

In May 2017, a lawsuit was filed by the family members of Erik Emmanuel Salas Sanchez, also claiming that their son's fatal shooting in the back by an El Paso police officer was part of a larger problem of police using excessive force when dealing with mentally ill people.

According to the lawsuit in the Salas case, Salas was taking an anti-depressant and was showing signs of mental health issues. His neighbor across the street called police on April 29, 2015, reporting that Salas had been inside her home but had left. She did not tell police that a burglary had occurred, according to the lawsuit.

Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez was one of the officers who responded to a call to a home in the 300 block of Jesuit Drive, according to court documents and an autopsy report obtained by the El Paso Times.

A police report states that Salas charged at an officer who had gone to his family's home. The officer fired his Taser, but it did not make full contact. Salas "then stopped, turned his attention to another officer and charged him. This officer fired his service weapon striking (Salas) multiple times."

Salas was shot three times in the back by Gomez, according to court documents and an autopsy report obtained by the El Paso Times.

Gomez was indicted in connection with the shooting. He is charged with one count of manslaughter. His case is pending in district court.

Ramirez's lawsuit cites the Salas shooting as an example of officers using excessive force against a person known to have mental health issues.

Both lawsuits involving Ramirez and Salas claim that El Paso police have used deadly force at a higher rate than the national average in recent years.

They also cite about nine other cases involving the alleged use of excessive force by El Paso police, including the high profile shooting of a handcuffed prisoner, Daniel Saenz, outside the Downtown jail in 2013.

According to Ramirez's lawsuit, about 57 percent of people in El Paso killed in officer-involved incidents from 2012 to 2016 showed signs of mental illness, and it claims that the officers were aware of it at the time. The lawsuit does not state the total number of cases in that time frame.

In August, the El Paso City Council approved $315,000 to establish a law enforcement team to improve the way police respond to mentally ill individuals.

The crisis intervention teams, or critical incident teams, will have licensed police officers who respond to emergency calls involving mentally ill people. The team won't be established for at least another year.

Veith said the creation of the team is a good step, but added he has yet to see the city make any changes in the way officers handle cases with mentally ill people.

"My case predates that and I have yet to see any changes in the data I have collected that suggests internally there are changes being made in the culture within the Police Department," Veith said.

Contradicting accounts

The allegations in the federal lawsuit filed by Ramirez contradict a complaint affidavit filed by the El Paso Police Department.

The affidavit claims the officer, who is not named in it, allegedly was confronted by Ramirez, who was holding a box cutter.

The officer ordered Ramirez to put down the box cutter, but Ramirez allegedly began walking toward the officer in a "threatening manner" while pointing the box cutter at the officer, the affidavit claims.

Ramirez, who was 32 years old at the time of the shooting, then allegedly told the officer, "Shoot me."

According to the affidavit, the officer gave Ramirez "numerous clear and concise verbal instructions to drop his weapon."

Ramirez allegedly refused to drop the weapon and continued walking toward the officer in a "threatening manner, immediately placing the uniform police officer in imminent fear of his life and safety," the affidavit states.

The officer then shot Ramirez.

The lawsuit claims that the officer is the one who confronted Ramirez, who was sitting on the ground in the backyard of the home. It also states that despite holding box cutters, Ramirez never physically threatened the officer.

Once Fonseca saw Ramirez sitting on the ground, he took cover behind a large dumpster more than 10 feet away from Ramirez, the lawsuit states.

Fonseca allegedly began yelling at Ramirez while pointing his gun at him.

Ramirez was "confused" by the activity, told the officers to leave and that he wanted to be alone. He then put the box cutters up to his own throat, the lawsuit states.

It goes on to state that Ramirez never made any threats to the officer.

Ramirez's brother, who was inside the house, came out and asked Fonseca if he could talk to Ramirez and de-escalate the situation.

He also informed the officer that Ramirez was suffering from mental health issues, the lawsuit states. Fonseca allegedly then pointed the weapon at Ramirez's brother.

Fonseca then allegedly began firing his weapon at Ramirez, who got up and allegedly attempted to run away after the first shots were fired, the lawsuit states.

At one point, Ramirez fell down and Fonseca allegedly shot Ramirez while he was on the ground, the lawsuit claims.

Ramirez suffered serious injuries in the shooting. Veith said that Ramirez was shot in the right side of the face, with the bullet traveling all the way to Ramirez's shoulder.

Ramirez was then arrested several days later on suspicion of aggravated assault on a peace officer after he was released from University Medical Center of El Paso.

The criminal case against Ramirez is pending in district court, El Paso County District Attorney's Office officials said.

According to court records, no charges have been filed against Fonseca.

No response to the lawsuit has been filed by Fonseca or city officials. A trial date has not been set.

Aaron Martinez may be reached at 546-6249; aamartinez@elpasotimes.com; @AMartinez31 on Twitter.

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(c)2018 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

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