A robbery suspect in Albuquerque appears to toss his gun into the air while fleeing a police officer who shot at him eight times from behind, newly released video shows. Four of the shots are heard after the gun is in the air.
The video, which includes audio, was captured in October by the officer's lapel-mounted camera.
The case of robbery suspect Joaquin Ortega, 35, is one of the most recent controversies surrounding the Albuquerque Police Department’s use of force.
The city has paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits related to alleged police misconduct in recent years. Since November 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating whether Albuquerque officers engage in excessive force, “including use of unreasonable deadly force.”
“Unfortunately, this is par for the course for the Albuquerque Police Department,” Ortega’s attorney, Kari Morrissey, told the Los Angeles Times. “You have an officer who’s demonstrated an inability to handle the job, but I’m guessing they are worried about showing any weakness by firing him and admitting they mistakenly hired him.”
The department didn’t respond to requests for comment, and a phone number for the officer involved couldn't be found.
Last year, police had initially reported that Ortega pointed a gun at the officer. Interim Chief Allen Banks later said that Ortega did no such thing, but that Officer Brian Pitzer was justified in perceiving a threat and opening fire.
All the shots are heard within about six seconds in the grainy video. KOB-TV slowed down the footage and brightened a portion of the scene, making the tossing of the gun visible.
After the arrest, Pitzer leads fellow officers to where the gun is lying on the ground and says the suspect had tossed the gun at him.
Authorities have alleged Ortega, with alcohol and drugs in his system, crashed his car into a light pole after driving recklessly. He got out of the car, robbed a woman alongside her grandchild and tried to steal a car, police said. Police chased Ortega down, leading to the scene in the video.
In the video, Ortega is seen outside an auto repair shop.
Six times, Pitzer yells, “Let me see your hands,” and refers to Ortega as “dude” and “bro.”
Ortega runs along the front of the building, walks between two cars and then turns to the right to head toward the sidewalk. Pitzer fires twice.
Ortega appears to toss a gun over his shoulder while two more shots are fired. Ortega continues to bolt down the sidewalk, his back turned to Pitzer, as the officer fires the remaining shots.
Ortega stumbles at the edge of the sidewalk, falls and is handcuffed.
He was wounded at least once in the shoulder. The video shows authorities tending to a moaning Ortega as he says, "Please, please."
A grand jury in November indicted Ortega on charges of child abuse, armed robbery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault upon a peace officer with a deadly weapon. The court case has been at a standstill while officers finish a police report, Morrissey said.
“Quite frankly, why it takes the department this long to complete a report for an incident like this is inexcusable,” she said.
Morrissey said she first saw the video Monday at the same time it was released to news media. With nothing on the clip showing Ortega acted aggressively toward the officer, Morrissey said a conviction on the officer assault charge is unlikely.
She said the video will be “quite helpful” for a lawsuit against the officers for injuring Ortega by unnecessarily shooting him. A lawsuit is unlikely to be filed until the criminal case is finished.
“It’s per se excessive force to shot someone in the back, perhaps because you don’t want to chase him down by foot,” said Morrissey, who has filed a complaint against Pitzer in a separate shooting case.
Last week, the city swore in a new police chief, New Mexico Public Safety Secretary Gorden Eden. Former Chief Ray Schultz retired in August, and interim Chief Banks resigned in January to take the same position in Round Rock, Texas.
Eden has said, among other things, he'd like to improve recruiting and internal affairs policies.
Morrissey welcomed the selection, but said the city could have done better.
“When you hire someone local, who is going to have political favors to pay back and not want to upset rank-and-file too much, we’re not going to see progress,” Morrissey said.
The city attorney’s office told her the police report is finished and would be available soon, she said.