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Officer Jeremy Bisagna loads canisters of pepper spray into a launcher.
Santa Fe Police Department

Abrupt Ending

Body camera video cuts before officer fires shots at schizophrenic man

July 27, 2017, 12:00 am

Fifteen minutes before he fired 16 shots at Anthony Benavidez, Santa Fe Police Officer Jeremy Bisagna sits in the back of a SWAT team vehicle preparing for confrontation. He loads canisters of liquid pepper spray into a launcher, holding each canister up to his body-worn camera and announcing “OC liquid.” 

Officers around Bisagna discuss the mental condition of Benavidez, a schizophrenic man holed up in a first-floor unit at the Tuscany at St. Francis Apartments. A few minutes later, Bisagna exits the vehicle, and explains to a SWAT colleague that Benavidez had thrown a duct-taped device out of the first floor window and stabbed a social worker.

A plan begins to formulate: Bisagna recommends plowing into the apartment with an armored vehicle to take Benavidez into custody. Several officers weigh in. It’s all captured on the 10-year SFPD veteran’s camera.

The other officers choose a different tack; they’ll smash out a window at the side of the apartment and arrest Benavidez, 24, that way.  

“So you’re comfortable with hitting it, knowing he had that window?” Bisagna says.

Then his hand reaches up toward the camera. The video ends.

Four minutes later, Bisagna empties the magazine from his handgun into the apartment, video from another officer’s camera shows. Still another video from the chaotic scene shows Benavidez’ lifeless body on the apartment’s floor moments after the shots rang out in rapid succession.

Someone announces that Benavidez had been holding a knife.

Meanwhile, Officer Luke Wakefield announces that he fired a round at Benavidez, too, the videos show. His camera was turned on during the shooting and, while it shows his finger on the trigger of his rifle, it does not show what Benavidez was doing in the moments before or during the shooting.

That Bisagna’s camera went dark in the minutes before the shooting raises a host of policy and legal questions. Body cameras have emerged as a key component in a growing police-reform movement in New Mexico and around the nation, with those pushing for change in the way police use force against citizens saying they provide an independent, unbiased lens on incidents such as deadly force encounters.

Last year, SFPD mandated that all officers wear cameras and record all interactions.

Phone calls to Bisagna and attorney John D’Amato, who represents the Santa Fe police union, were not returned by publication time. The department declined to make Bisagna available for an interview, citing the ongoing investigation.

How Bisagna’s camera shut down—and why—will be part of an investigation by the SFPD internal affairs division, Deputy Chief Mario Salbidrez confirms to SFR. He adds that the department has provided all the video taken from the encounter with Benavidez to SFR; there is no additional video from Bisagna’s camera.

Salbidrez says all elements of the shooting are under investigation, as is standard procedure in any police shooting.

That probe’s aim will be to determine whether Bisagna violated any SFPD policies in the run-up to the shooting or by pulling the trigger when he shouldn’t have.

A likely first stop for investigators: the department’s body-worn camera policy.

It states that all officers “shall activate [body-worn cameras] as soon as practical” when responding to a call for service or while interacting with a member of the public for encounters such as arrests, pursuits and interrogations. Officers’ cameras “shall remain activated” in most instances until police cease contact with an individual or clear a scene. And officers are directed to announce they are terminating a recording prior to doing so, the policy says.

Bisagna made no such announcement.

For tactical teams such as SWAT, officers are permitted to turn off their body-worn cameras as they develop arrest plans and make other decisions in order to conserve battery life. But the policy states the cameras “shall be activated during directed action.”

Bisagna’s camera did not capture the shots he fired. But it rolled for more than 11 minutes as he loaded the pepper spray launcher, slung a rifle over his shoulder and discussed in detail various versions of a take-down plan.

At one point, Bisagna asked the scene commander, Lt. Ben Valdez, whether a “yard bang” might win the SWAT team more success in arresting Benavidez.

“Should we do some type of yard response here?” Bisagna asks Valdez. “A yard bang, ‘cause he did this and we haven’t done a response yet.”

Ultimately, the team decided to approach the apartment’s side window. 

Video from Sgt. Nick Wood’s camera begins about three minutes after Bisagna’s shuts down, according to timestamps from the two cameras. It shows Bisagna, holding a shield, positioned at the front of the team that approached Benavidez’ apartment. 

The small team of officers rush the window, Wood’s video shows. Wood smashes out the window with a large metal rod. Officers scream at Benavidez to show them his hands. Bisagna fires 16 shots in rapid succession. It is not clear when Wakefield fires his lone shot.

Neither Santa Fe police nor New Mexico State Police, which is investigating the shooting for possible criminal charges, have confirmed whether Bisagna’s or Wakefield’s bullets killed Benavidez. But Santa Fe police told SFR earlier this week that the incident marked the first time that somebody had been injured or killed as a result of force by the SWAT team since its inception in the 1970s.

 

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