New Mexico city agrees to police reforms in choke settlement

A New Mexico city will seek to adopt racial bias training for police and may require officers to intervene in possible excessive force episodes following the choking death of a Latino man, according to an agreement in a lawsuit announced Thursday.

The deal between the city of Las Cruces and a lawyer for the family of Antonio Valenzuela was part of the relatives’ push to reform Las Cruces police following their wrongful death lawsuit in the case.

The Washington Post has reported that between 2015 and last April, Las Cruces — where nearly 60% of residents are Hispanic — recorded the highest per capita rate of police killings in the nation.

Under the agreement, Las Cruces police agreed to ban all chokeholds and fire any officer who violates the new policy — something city officials say the city already does. Police also must adopt a warning system involving officers who use excessive force and forge a policy so officers can undergo yearly mental health exams.

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The proposals must be approved by Las Cruces City Council.

The city also agreed to pay compensation to Valenzuela’s family, but terms were not disclosed.

“We are confident that we have made it cost-prohibitive for the Las Cruces Police Department to continue wrongfully killing its citizens,” Sam Bregman, the family’s attorney, said.

Adrian Guzman, a spokesman for the city, said some of the proposed policies are already in place. The vascular neck restraint, for example, was prohibited by a policy put forth by the former police chief, Guzman said.

“For the past five years, the city engaged a police audit firm that reported internal affairs complaints and reported on the number of use of force complaints,” Guzman said. He said the city will seek proposals that continue and expand such reporting.

Valenzuela, 40, had a warrant out for his arrest because of a parole violation and fought with officers who tried to detain him after he fled from a traffic stop in February.

After a chase, then-Las Cruces Officer Christopher Smelser applied the chokehold. Smelser, who is white, can be heard on police video saying, “I’m going to (expletive) choke you out, bro.”

Valenzuela died at the scene. The coroner determined he died from asphyxial injuries and that he had methamphetamine in his system which contributed to his death.

Smelser was later fired and faces a second-degree murder charge. He has not yet entered a plea.

Smelser’s attorney, Amy L. Orlando, said Smelser had been trained to use the hold and the murder charge was a political move meant to grab headlines.

The charge came as Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Demonstrators have put pressure on police departments to change policies involving the use of force and interactions with Black, Latino, and Native American residents.

The death of Valenzuela generated protests in Las Cruces, 46 miles (74 kilometers) north of the U.S.-Mexico border. There were renewed protests after Floyd’s death.

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Associated Press journalist Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity Team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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