New Mexico city OKs police reforms in chokehold settlement

A New Mexico city has agreed to provide racial bias training for police and require officers to intervene in possible excessive force episodes following the choking death of a Latino man

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- A New Mexico city will provide racial bias training for police and 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. 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.

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, did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Valenzuela died in February after then-Las Cruces officer Christopher Smelser applied the chokehold when Valenzuela fled during a traffic stop. After the chase, 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.

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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