The city has reached a settlement to resolve a wrongful death claim filed by the family of Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old man living with schizophrenia who was shot and killed by two Santa Fe SWAT officers, according to the counsel of record handling the case.
Shannon Kennedy, of the law firm Kennedy Kennedy & Ives, says the man's family and the city agreed to a $400,000 settlement on November 7, though the legal team for Roseanne Lopez, who was Benavidez' half-sister, has not yet filed a motion in the First District Court to dismiss the claim. The amount is the maximum liability allowed for "damages" besides property repair and medical expenses under New Mexico's tort claim law.
Benavidez died on July 19 2017, after Santa Fe police officers Jeremy Bisagna and Luke Wakefield fired 17 shots at him during a standoff at the Tuscany at St. Francis Apartments complex in southeast Santa Fe. The day before his death, Santa Fe County Sheriff's deputies and city police were sent to the Tuscany at St. Francis Apartments to evict Benavidez for a single late monthly rent payment.
Concerned about Benavidez' mental condition, the sheriff's deputies called an ambulance to take him to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center's emergency room. The hospital discharged him the same day, and Benavidez returned to the apartment from which he had just been evicted. A property manager called the police the next morning after a caseworker failed to coax him out of the apartment.
Body camera footage from several officers at the scene show a team of police in full SWAT gear smashing a back window shortly before Bisagna and Wakefield fired their weapons. A standoff had preceded the shooting, in which officers can be heard discussing Benavidez' mental illness. According to Kennedy, the fatal shot was fired by Wakefield, who was under investigation by SFPD earlier this year for another shot he fired during a January SWAT raid.
District Attorney Marco Serna, who has appointed a panel of special prosecutors to determine whether the shooting was justified, has not indicated whether either of the two officers will face criminal charges for the killing.
The complaint filed by Lopez in November 2017 said that SFPD Lieutenant Ben Valdez "ordered an escalation of SFPD communications" with Benavidez, and ordered a sergeant to approach the back window instead of waiting to establish communication with him. It accused the city of failing to "adequately hire, train, and oversee its officers."
While the city is now off the hook in the Benavidez case, though likely to include boilerplate language in settlement documents that does not admit fault, a separate lawsuit filed by Lopez against the two entities that operate Christus St. Vincent hospital and two of its employees who interacted with Benavidez the day before his death is still active; claims against a contractor that provides emergency room services for the hospital and one of its employees were dropped on Nov. 2.
"Given the frequency with which police use deadly force for people with mental health crises, it's foreseeable for the hospital that if they release a person who suffers from a mental health crisis, police will have to detain person," Kennedy tells SFR. "They need to stop doing that and do their job so the community isn't faced with circumstances that results in tragic death."