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City of Las Cruces agrees to pay $6M in wrongful death suit

August 19, 2020 GMT

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico city has agreed to pay a family more than $6 million in a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from the choking death of a Latino man in February.

The city of Las Cruces reached the agreement July 17 and promised to make the payment within 30 days to the family of Antonio Valenzuela, who died at the hands of a former police officer, the Las Cruces Sun News reported Wednesday.

Albuquerque attorney Sam Bregman said the monetary compensation his clients received was substantial, adding that it would be “cost-prohibitive” for the department to be involved in future wrongful death lawsuits.

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The police department also agreed to ban all forms of neck restraints and chokehold, host biannual training on de-escalation policies and provide racial bias training. 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 family knows nothing will bring Antonio back, but they appreciate the city making an effort to change its policies to provide better policing,” Bregman said.

The settlement also states that the family had claims against former Police Officer Christopher Smelser and others in the department, but that the city payment waives each of those claims.

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 Feb. 29, authorities said. Smelser, who is Hispanic, then placed him in a vascular neck restraint.

An autopsy report released the first week of June ruled Valenzuela’s death a homicide. His Adam’s apple was crushed, he had swelling in the brain, fractured ribs and damaged blood vessels in his eyes consistent with strangulation.

Smelser was later fired and faces a second-degree murder charge. Smelser’s attorney, Amy L. Orlando, previously said Smelser had been trained to use the hold and the murder charge was a political move meant to grab headlines amid national outcry over racial injustice and police brutality.