An apartment eviction descends into a deadly SWAT standoff. A home alarm check goes wrong after a rookie cop fires bullets into an elderly caretaker. A foot chase ends with an officer bashing a man's head against concrete.
These are just some of eight separate events involving nine law enforcement officers, one of whom is an animal control officer, that have cost Santa Fe taxpayers at least $1.4 million over the last two years, according to documents obtained by SFR through a public records request.
The Santa Fe Police Department is notoriously secretive about officers' personnel files, as SFR has reported numerous times. Finding out whether a cop has ever faced disciplinary consequences through public records requests is all but impossible. But settlements paid out by the city on behalf of officers accused of negligence or abuse provide a glimpse of their cost to the public.
SFR examined documents for every payment from Jan. 1, 2017 through Oct. 31, 2018 to resolve claims against the city through its Risk Management Division. They show that the actions of just six officers resulted in payouts totaling nearly a million dollars. SFR also confirmed another $20,000 settlement that is not yet reflected in the documents.
On Nov. 7, the city agreed to a $400,000 payment for the family of Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old man living with schizophrenia who was shot and killed by two SFPD SWAT officers in July 2017 after he'd been evicted from his apartment but returned to it and wouldn't leave. The Benavidez settlement pushed the known total amount paid by the city on behalf of cops to $1.4 million, 40 percent of the $3.5 million that it paid to resolve more than 120 separate claims.
It could have been higher if not for New Mexico's tort claims law, which limits to $400,000 the amount a plaintiff can receive from a public entity in state court for all damage claims arising from a single occurrence. Judges can raise the cap in some cases, but in an incident like the Benavidez shooting, where officers Jeremy Bisagna and Luke Wakefield fired 17 shots that led to his death, recourse for the family was limited.
"We want to deter overreaching by police, and there is no deterrent if the most a city can ever have to pay is $400,000," says Shannon Kennedy, lead counsel for Roseanne Lopez, Benavidez' half-sister who filed the complaint.
City Attorney Erin McSherry, who began working at City Hall in July, says the city's insurance carrier settled the Benavidez case because potential liabilities exceeded $50,000. As with all of its settlements, the city admits no fault in the case.
In response to SFR's inquiry whether any of the officers mentioned in claims were ever disciplined, department spokesman Greg Gurulé said such documents are "personnel records" shielded from public disclosure. (As SFR has reported, this is a misinterpretation of the law.) Six officers involved in the claims, however, are still on the force.
In two cases, police accused of negligent driving racked up over a half a million dollars on the city's tab. None of the officers involved are currently working at SFPD, according to the city.
The larger of the two payments went to Perry Foster and Daniel Chacón. In February 2016, former Santa Fe police officer Jacquaan Matherson T-boned a Jeep carrying the two men. According to a complaint filed by Chacón, a reporter at The Santa Fe New Mexican, and Foster against the city and Matherson, both suffered severe injuries, with damage to Foster's leg likely permanent. In June 2017, the city agreed to pay $11,000 to Chacón and $289,000 to Foster.
A few months before the Matherson incident, in October 2015, former officer Joseph Cannon crashed into Brenda and Raymond Garcia at the intersection of Guadalupe and Paseo de Peralta. One person was hospitalized, and the two received $200,000 from the city in April. SFPD says Cannon is no longer on the force, but won't say why.
A complaint lodged by David Leon-Galdamez in September 2015 against former officer Ladlslas Szabo for yet another crash, this one on Airport Road near the Country Club Road intersection, was recently settled for $20,000, Leon-Galdamez' attorney confirms.
At least one officer has been promoted since his actions cost the city $34,750. Jose Gonzales, who is now a lieutenant and head of the department's DWI division, bloodied Joe Larry Maestas' head following a brief foot chase in November 2016, according to Maestas' complaint. Maestas needed 50 stitches afterward; SFR couldn't locate an arrest record for him. Another officer, Jesus Rodriguez, also remains on the force after his alleged wrongful arrest of Kraig Maestas for driving without a license was settled for $47,500.
In August 2014, animal control officer Marshall Martinez visited the the trailer home residence of Stephen Cummings; it spiraled into a full SWAT deployment after Martinez falsely claimed that Cummings had a knife. Cummings was later acquitted of all charges stemming from the incident, and sued the city, Martinez, and then-SFPD Chief Eric Garcia. The city settled for $165,000. Martinez is still an animal control officer.
Even though it's been over five years since officer Charles Laramie shot and severely wounded an elderly man who had been taking care of an east side home, the family of Robert Dominguez only settled with the city in June. Laramie mistook Dominguez for an intruder, shooting him three times. Dominguez eventually died from his wounds, and the city paid two of his children $212,500. Laramie is still on the force; the city's website says he makes $23.94 an hour.
While the city is now off the hook in the Benavidez case, 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; she asked a judge dropp claims against a contractor that provides emergency room services for the hospital and one of its employees on Nov. 2.
District Attorney Marco Serna, who has appointed a panel of special prosecutors to determine whether the shooting was justified, tells SFR he is not sure when the panel might announce potential criminal charges for either of the officers involved.