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A First

Shooting death of schizophrenic man is the first fatality by SFPD SWAT Team

July 26, 2017, 11:45 am

Santa Fe police say 24-year-old Anthony Benavidez was the first person to be injured or killed by the the department’s SWAT team since it was formed in the 1970s.

Following an hour-long standoff last Wednesday morning, officers fired at least 15 shots into an apartment where Benavidez, who was living with schizophrenia, had allegedly stabbed a social worker earlier in the day.

SWAT callouts are relatively rare in Santa Fe, according to figures provided to SFR. During the past five years, SWAT has averaged five full deployments each year. And the team has been used, on average, 13 times a year to execute a search or arrest warrant.

Lt. Ben Valdez, who oversees the team and supervised the incident in which Benavidez was killed, writes in an email to SFR that the Santa Fe Police SWAT team is composed of two team leaders and 13 “operators.” The department’s tactical team also features medical services officers, crisis negotiators and explosives experts. All of them except the explosives team receive 40 hours of standard crisis intervention training from the Law Enforcement Academy, plus an additional 40 hours of training from the FBI in basic crisis negotiations.

On Tuesday, the Santa Fe police department released body camera video from more than a dozen officers who went to the apartment where Benavidez had holed up. It does not show what led police to fire at Benavidez in the moments leading up to the shooting, but it does confirm that officers were aware of his mental illness as the incident unfolded.

Uniformed Santa Fe police officers arrived at the Tuscany at St. Francis apartments near the intersection of St. Francis Drive and Siringo Road after a manager reported that Benavidez had broken into a unit from which he’d been evicted the day before. New Mexico state police have said Benavidez then stabbed a social worker at his front door. The worker had accompanied police to help coax him out. After the stabbing, the social worker was treated and released from a hospital.

State police also have said Benavidez threw two “improvised explosive devices” at officers, though neither appears to have detonated. That’s when Santa Fe police sent in the SWAT team. One of the video clips shows officers discussing propane and chemicals such as ammonia and bleach being inside the apartment and wiring along the floor.

Police then chose to break through a back window, but it’s not clear who ordered it. Lt. Valdez did not have his body camera switched on until after the shooting. A team of SWAT officers then moved to the back window. A sergeant shattered it before he and others commanded somebody inside to surrender, the videos show.

Without warning, Officer Jeremy Bisagna, a 10-year veteran of SFPD, fired multiple shots through the window with a handgun. Video does not show where the bullets struck. SFR counted at least 15 total shots. According to state police, Officer Luke Wakefield, who joined SFPD in 2014, also fired his weapon.

Before the shooting, Bisagna’s camera captured another officer stating that a psychiatric nurse at the scene said Benavidez had schizophrenia. His camera goes dark just before officers began approaching the window. It did not capture the shots he fired, and the department did not provide any video from his camera that shows the shots he fired.

Warning: Disturbing content. 

Early in the encounter, uniformed officers tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Benavidez, the videos show.

“Mr. Benavidez, do the right thing,” one officer says. “We can’t go anywhere. You know that. So you need to come out and talk to us, OK?”

But after the SWAT team arrived, the tone of police communications shifted.

Immediately before and during the shooting, a police voice that is either live or recorded can be heard demanding that Benavidez exit the apartment with his hands up. The message blared from a loudspeaker several times during the standoff.

After the gunfire subsides, SWAT officers ram through the front door and collect Benavidez’ lifeless body.

The shooting—and what led up to it—illustrates one of the most hotly debated topics in American policing: how officers deal with people living with mental illness.

Peter Kraska, a frequently cited scholar of police militarization at Eastern Kentucky University, says Santa Fe’s 40 hours of crisis intervention training—which focuses, among other things, on how to approach a potentially volatile situation involving someone in the middle of a mental health crisis— is typical nationwide, but is not enough.

“One of the reasons why this is becoming such a big issue is not only do you have a lack of training, you have a lot of things that compete against that training,” Kraska tells SFR. “You have to be calm, and of course careful, but you have to de-escalate.”

This past Saturday, the Santa Fe chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness held a public meeting at the Friendship Club for those who wished to discuss the incident.

“Some people asked, ‘Are we going to get to the bottom of what happened?’ [But] it’s not the purpose of the meeting,” says Betty Shover, president of the chapter. “It’s just to be supportive, to gather around each other, because we’re all traumatized and unnerved about these situations when they happen because it hits close to home.”

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Benavidez' mother, Elizabeth Palma, said her son received a mental health evaluation at Christus St. Vincent Hospital last Tuesday, the day before the shooting, but hospital staff declined to keep him there.

Citing federal privacy laws, St. Vincent would not confirm to SFR whether Benavidez had been a patient there.

A few people at Saturday’s meeting complained about the difficulty in accessing the behavioral health unit at Christus St. Vincent, Shover says. She cites the hospital’s non-participation in a new program in which hospital directors and others can petition a district judge to mandate a person with mental illness submit to outpatient treatment, including medication.

Debbi Honey, chief medical nurse at Christus St. Vincent, tells SFR that people with mental health crises who go to the emergency room meet with a physician and a crisis counselor, who evaluate whether patients are a threat to themselves or others. Sometimes, she says, the hospital helps patients put together an outpatient treatment plan before they’re discharged.

“Patients have rights, we cannot hold someone involuntarily,” says Arturo Delgado, communications director for the hospital. “I think that’s a critical patient right for anybody.”

Benavidez was the second person to be killed by Santa Fe police this year. The first was Andrew Lucero, who was shot and killed on April 29 in Eldorado by Officer Leonardo Guzman. As with the Benavidez shooting, state police headed up the investigation into Lucero’s death.

District Attorney Marco Serna says state police recently handed him investigative files pertaining to the Lucero shooting, which he passed off to the Administrative Office of the District Attorneys for an “independent review.” A panel of five district attorneys is reviewing the evidence gathered by state police. That’s a new practice for Santa Fe prosecutors; it comes after SFR exposed last year the inner workings of a highly unusual and secretive grand jury system that for decades rendered jurors powerless to charge officers criminally for on-duty shootings even if they wanted to.

“We’ll review all the evidence that was collected, look at facts, read witness statements, view any audio and video, and if it’s found in violation of the justified shooting for police statute, a further violation will be looked at,” says San Juan County DA Rick Tedrow, one of the prosecutors on the panel. “If it’s not against the statute, it will probably stop there.”

Asked whether the panelists have discussed convening again for the Benavidez shooting, Tedrow says, “it’s not even on the radar.”

 

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