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Justified NM police-involved shooting costs city $900,000

Prosecutors who reviewed the case ruled the shooting justified, the officer believed the victim was armed and holding 2 hostage

By Dan McKay
Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE — Alan Gomez died two years ago in the entryway of his brother's home — shot in the chest by an Albuquerque police officer who said he thought Gomez had a gun and planned to kill two hostages.

It turns out Gomez, 22, was unarmed at the time.

That split-second decision to shoot will cost City Hall about $900,000 under the terms of a settlement with the Gomez family, who had sued over the death.

"This is just blood money to me," Michael Gomez , Alan's father, said Friday in an interview. "My kid, he died. This way, at least he didn't die in vain."

Gomez said he views the size of the settlement as acknowledgement that the shooting was wrong.

City Attorney David Tourek said the settlement was simply the "best economic, legal and policy decision." The city admits no liability, he said.

Prosecutors who reviewed the case ruled the shooting justified. They said officer Sean Wallace decided to shoot based on a belief that Gomez was armed and preparing to harm hostages: his brother and brother's girlfriend.

Investigators later said Gomez was actually holding a large black spoon at one point, though Gomez did have a rifle earlier that night and had fired it before police arrived. It was found, loaded, in a hall closet. Police were dispatched after the girlfriend called to say they were being held against their will.

Joseph Fine, an attorney for the Gomez family, disputes that Alan was holding anything at all, even a spoon. He said the Gomez shooting shares similarities with two other police cases his firm has handled.

"They were all unarmed when shot and, in all three, the police alleged that they were in possession of something resembling a weapon," Fine said. "And it was absurd."

Fine's firm won a $4.25 million verdict in one shooting lawsuit, though the payout was capped by law at $400,000 because of the particulars of that case, he said. In another case, the family settled with the city for $950,000.

APD tab passes $26M
Friday's settlement pushes the potential tab for police misconduct cases since 2010 to more than $26 million.

That includes a $10.3 million jury award last spring in a lawsuit filed by the family of Iraq War veteran Kenneth Ellis III. The city has appealed.

City Council President Ken Sanchez said the city should consider earmarking more money for the fund that handles legal claims.

"This isn't the last of it," Sanchez said. "I don't see how we cannot put additional money in there, based on the amount of these settlements."
Tourek, the city attorney, said settlement was the best option in the Gomez case.

"Settlement decisions are made in a deliberative and collaborative process before a multimember claims review board," he said in a written statement. "Considering that even ... a 5 percent finding of fault against the city would have resulted in a sizeable amount of mandatory legal fees, the committee deemed the best economic, legal and policy decision for the city and APD was to resolve this case through settlement."

The settlement comes as the U.S. Department of Justice investigates whether APD has a pattern of violating people's civil rights, particularly through the use of force.

Albuquerque police officers have fired at 34 suspects since early 2010. Twenty-two of the shootings ended in fatalities, though in one case the suspect was killed by a State Police officer and in another it's not clear whether the person died from police fire.

Victim was 'troubled'
The 2011 shooting of Gomez was the third by officer Wallace.

Wallace, as a State Police officer, shot and killed a Chimayo man in 2004. A grand jury cleared him, though the state paid $235,000 to settle a wrongful death suit. Wallace joined APD in 2007. In 2010, he shot and wounded a man during a SWAT standoff.

After the shooting of Gomez, an Albuquerque police spokeswoman said it wasn't unusual for Wallace to have been involved in two shootings during his tenure with APD. Wallace, a K-9 officer, is "in tactical, and part of his training is to deal with high-risk situations," Sgt. Trish Hoffman said in 2011.

Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy said Wallace met the "background requirements to become a police officer at the time he was hired" and that reviews of his shootings have ruled them justified.

An autopsy found Gomez had been shot once in the chest, near his armpit, and that he had morphine and methamphetamine in his system, according to a review conducted by the District Attorney's Office.

Michael Gomez said his son's death hits home particularly hard during the holidays. "Alan Gomez was strong, was smart, but he was troubled," Michael Gomez said. "His family loved him, and he loved his family. He didn't deserve to die."

Michael Gomez has emerged as a leading activist pushing for change in the city's police department. He frequently speaks before the City Council.

He sent a three-page letter to Mayor Richard Berry on Friday recommending careful screening of officers who transfer into APD from other agencies, re-evaluation of lethal force training and other changes.

Gomez said he wrote with "suggestions so that, hopefully, a number of other parents will not experience the same nightmare which I have endured."

Copyright 2013 the Albuquerque Journal

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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