El Paso police accused of showing pattern of excessive force

El Paso Police Department vehicle (EPPD Facebook photo)
El Paso Police Department vehicle (EPPD Facebook photo)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – A federal lawsuit filed by the family of Erik Salas-Sanchez against the City of El Paso, EPPD Officer Mando Gomez, and two other officers with the El Paso Police Department late last week alleges a pattern of escalating excessive force within EPPD – especially when responding to calls regarding people with known mental illnesses.

Salas-Sanchez was shot in the back by EPPD officer Mando Gomez during an alleged robbery call in the Lower Valley on April 29, 2015. According to a press release sent out by EPPD at the time, a neighbor had called about a robbery in progress call and Salas-Sanchez and when they arrived at the scene, he lunged at them with an unknown metal object and was subsequently shot by Officer Mando Gomez.

An autopsy report later revealed that Salas-Sanchez was actually shot in the back as he was retreating from the officers on the scene. In the federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week, the family alleges that the officers entered the home without permission and without a warrant after Salas-Sanchez was yelling at them from behind a screen door to get off the property.

During this time, his mother was speaking with officers outside, expressing concern over his deteriorating mental condition and was allegedly requesting help from the Officers to get him access to mental healthcare.

The court documents allege that EPPD officers became agitated at Salas-Sanchez’s insistence that they leave the home and entered the home without permission where they reportedly first attempted to tase him and then shot him in the back as he retreated down a hallway in the home.

The lawsuit claims Salas-Sanchez never lunged toward officers and didn’t have a weapon on him at the time he was shot, despite what EPPD told the media shortly after the shooting.

The lawsuit goes on to outline several high-profile EPPD officer-involved incidents involving people with mental health issues. In one instance outlined in the lawsuit, EPPD is accused of arriving at a home of a man who was attempting suicide. They reportedly found him in the backyard attempting to hang himself on the basketball net. The suit alleges that instead of removing the man from the net or helping him, they tased him. He later died as a result of the suicide attempt.

Several other officer involved shootings involving people with known, reported mental health issues are also involved in the lawsuit.

The suit claims that from 2012 to 2016 close to 57% of those who died in police custody had exhibited signs of mental illness. In 2015, over 66% of residents who were killed during officer-involved shootings also exhibited signs of mental illness and that number grew to 100% of the shooting deaths involving EPPD officers in 2016.

The lawsuit does not indicate whether other factors such as alcohol or drugs were contributing factors in all of the EPPD Officer-involved shootings.

Officer Gomez, the EPPD Officer who fired his weapon five times at Salas-Sanchez during the April 2015 incident has since been indicted by a grand jury on manslaughter charges. He is named as an independent party to the federal civil rights lawsuit.

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