EL PASO, Texas (KTSM/KTEP) — Until early 2023, El Paso remained one of the largest cities in the United States without body cameras for all officers. Civil rights attorneys tell KTSM and KTEP it has led to a pattern of abuse of force and lack of discipline within the department.
Daniel Diaz’s family ultimately decided not to file a lawsuit after fighting the City of El Paso for nearly two years for documents and footage from the night he died in police custody.
“They struck him over 19 times, and they struck him in the head, in the torso, and they kicked him over four times. Tell me that that’s not excessive use of force,” Daniel Diaz’s brother-in-law Ben Miranda told KTSM and KTEP.
Diaz’s death is not unique. It’s a pattern that keeps repeating.
In 2021, Joshua Long walked into the El Paso Municipal Courthouse for a traffic violation hearing, ready to pay a ticket. Long’s clothing – sweat pants and sandals – immediately sparked a dispute and ended with him being restrained by 10 El Paso Police Department officers.
“I took a step back, kept my hands where they could see them, and at that point and time, they rushed me,” Long told KTSM in 2021.
Long’s attorney initially planned to file a lawsuit against the City but ultimately decided not to. Instead, a formal complaint was filed with the El Paso Police Department Internal Affairs Division.
In August of the same year, Anna Barnes, a mother of five, crashed into a small tree in West El Paso while driving her kids. Officers believed she was drunk and was fleeing the scene with her kids.
She was severely beaten.
“One of the officers swept the legs from underneath her, and then they grabbed her, and they started punching her in the face so hard they broke the bones in her face,“ her attorney Randall Kallinen tells KTSM.
After the incident, a DPS blood analysis revealed Barnes was sober. She is now suing the City for damages.
“Based upon other cases in El Paso where federal judges, one federal judge has determined there is enough evidence to go forward that the city of El Paso has a pattern in practice of not disciplining officers. Of course, when you don’t discipline officers for excessive use of force, they tend to do it more,” Kallinen said.
Along with her Houston-based attorney, Barnes called for EPPD to implement body cameras for every officer, which eventually happened in early 2023.
“With body cameras and video, it’s the truth, and people can handle the truth,” local civil rights attorney Christopher Benoit told KTSM and KTEP. “The City pushed off having body cameras or lapel cameras far longer than any other major city in the state of Texas. And we hope that now that we have them, we’ll be able to see the stories that they tell when it’s necessary to do so.”
Looking back on similar cases they’ve worked on, Diaz’s family attorneys, Lynn Coyle and Benoit, say the issue is not just transparency within the police department but how every officer starts their career.
“The problem with the training is that the officers are not being trained to properly assess the information from the beginning. And they are perceiving threats when the threats are not there,” Coyle said.
A spokesperson with the El Paso Police Department says that although they’d like to do more to improve, they face challenges.
“We always are looking for ways of increasing training. With staffing shortages, we have to balance training with response, and it becomes difficult,” Sgt. Robert Gomez said.
Coyle and Benoit also represented the family of Daniel Ramirez. In 2015, Ramirez’s mother called 911 to report her son was suicidal and was attempting to hang himself under a basketball net.
“As he is taking steps to end his life, according to Officer Escajeda, in his own words, he sees him standing under the basketball net. He sees the noose around his neck; he sees Danny holding the noose, and he’s standing on his tiptoes,” Coyle explained. “No weapon, no threat, none whatsoever, but somehow, because of the way we trained our officers, Officer Escajeda sees Danny Ramirez as a threat to him, so he pulls out and uses intermediate force, which is 50 thousand volts of electricity and within 5 feet of him in these circumstances and tases him in the chest – killing him.”
Coyle said after they filed the lawsuit with the Ramirez case and the case of Erik Salas Sanchez, who was shot in the back and killed in his mother’s kitchen during a mental health crisis in 2015, the El Paso Police Department changed its use of force policy.
“I think that that change had already taken place. I think the policies can still be tighter. But really something, there is a disconnect between the standards for the use of force and what they are actually learning and understanding,” said Coyle.
An El Paso Police Department spokesperson sat down with KTSM and KTEP to explain how they train their officers and what they say is the necessary use of force in specific encounters with citizens.
“You’re at your house, and somebody is breaking in, and that person’s violent. We don’t have a choice to not engage. We have to go in protected. Violence is sometimes a necessary part of our job,” Gomez said.
The City of El Paso agreed to settle out of court with the Ramirez family in June 2023, paying $600,000. In Sanchez’s case, Officer Mando Gomez, who shot him, was the first El Paso Police officer to be criminally charged for an in-custody death. A jury ultimately acquitted him in court. The family then filed a civil suit and settled with the City for $1.2 million. Anna Barnes’ suit is still pending in federal court.
Following the settlement with the Ramirez family, the City of El Paso noted they’d made multiple improvements to the force since Ramirez’s death, including implementing a Crisis Intervention Team for individuals exhibiting mental distress, funding of body-worn cameras, and updating their use of force policies and training.