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Whistleblower alleges excessive force at N.M. jail

This is the second lawsuit in recent months by former Metropolitan Detention Center employees alleging retaliation and substandard conditions at the jail

Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center.jpg

Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center

By Matthew Reisen
Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When officer vacancies at the state’s largest jail got too high in 2022, the Metropolitan Detention Center had tactical corrections officers — akin to a SWAT team — fill in the gaps.

Then, according to a whistleblower lawsuit, use of force incidents against MDC inmates increased.

In one case, tactical corrections officers allegedly used a TASER multiple times on a naked man in the shower while he was in standing water. Months later, a sergeant slammed handcuffed inmate John Sanchez on his head, and, having suffered a broken back, neck and brain bleed, he died days later.

A woman whose job it was to review such incidents at MDC alleges that she was retaliated against — and eventually forced out — for trying to hold accountable those using excessive force on inmates.

On Aug. 10, Priscilla Torres filed a lawsuit against the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, Warden Jason Jones and others seeking compensatory and other damages.

It was Torres’ job, serving on two panels related to use of force, to file complaints about excessive force incidents, according to the suit. When she filed complaints about a lack of discipline against the officers involved, as well as her earning less than male counterparts, she was removed from both panels.

“Ms. Torres was punished for speaking the truth and behaving in an ethical fashion,” according to the suit filed in 2nd Judicial District Court.

MDC spokeswoman Candace Hopkins said in a statement, “the Bernalillo County legal team will review this lawsuit and determine the appropriate next steps.”

Claims of retaliation, excessive force

Torres’ lawsuit is one of two filed in recent months by former Metropolitan Detention Center employees alleging retaliation and substandard conditions at the jail, a detention center where 24 people have died since the beginning of 2020. Those cases include a homicide, suicides and deaths from natural causes, though many also involved inmates who were detoxing from drugs or alcohol.

A separate lawsuit filed in May by former MDC Sgt. Robert Mason, alleges that other officers had expressed racist views and saw detainees as “the enemy” and “sometimes barely even human.”

When Mason brought up this and other “serious deficiencies” — such as low staffing, morale and safety concerns — to his superiors, he was berated, accused of “complaining” and eventually retaliated against, according to the lawsuit. Mason eventually provided photographs of the “deplorable conditions” at MDC to a news outlet for a story on the jail and he was wrongfully placed on administrative leave and eventually fired in late 2022 for doing so.

Mason’s suit alleges that the “toxic culture” at MDC kept detainees and staff from speaking up “for fear of retaliation.” The suit seeks damages and reinstatement of Mason’s employment with Bernalillo County.

Mason didn’t stop there, taking his claims to a Bernalillo County Commission meeting on Aug. 8. He told commissioners that since being fired, fellow officers at the jail have reached out to him “to express concerns and seek advice on raising issues while fearing potential retaliation.”

Mason told the commissioners that one of the biggest concerns he heard was that Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT) officers were “operating without proper control, resorting to excessive force and lacking oversight.”

He said the officers’ “fears are now a reality” as a CERT sergeant they warned him about — who trains CERT on defensive tactics — had slammed Sanchez to the floor, days before the inmate was taken off of life support.

“I’m here to emphasize the emergence of a detrimental culture within the organization,” Mason told the commission. “This culture emphasizes secrecy and distrust, encapsulated by an ‘us against them’ or ‘culture of silence’ mentality, wherein what transpires within the CERT team remains isolated.”

The commissioners did not respond to Mason’s comments.

MDC officials have said the sergeant and two other officers involved in Sanchez’s case are on administrative leave as the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office investigates the death. No charges have been filed.

In an interview with investigators, the sergeant said the takedown move he used on Sanchez, who had kicked at his leg, was not a tactic he’d been trained on. The sergeant added that MDC’s use of force policy was “outdated” and the way he handled Sanchez is “like a gray area with our use of force policy.”

‘Forced out’

Torres was a supervisor on both the Use of Force Review Panel and the Early Warning System — used to identify troublesome officers — who would flag such cases for possible excessive force.

The panels were established in the past several years to reduce excessive use of force incidents at the jail. Torres was assigned to them in 2019.

Torres’ suit alleges that in mid-2022, MDC leadership “changed the makeup of the panels” to “reduce their, already limited, effectiveness,” removing certain positions while filling others with unqualified people.

Those changes led to a decreased review of use of force incidents and “near diminished” reporting of officers’ excessive use of force, according to the suit. Then, in November 2022, MDC began using CERT officers to fill vacant positions at the jail.

Torres’ suit alleges that CERT officers, who were trained to address “violent or volatile situations,” acted with impunity and the violence at MDC increased while “little to no reporting was conducted.” Reprimands and referrals were often ignored, according to the suit — or not sent in a timely manner, so no action was taken.

Torres tried to speak with her supervisor and the warden as the violence by CERT members increased, including the shower incident and the death of John Sanchez, according to the suit. Torres’ requests for a higher review of such incidents went unaddressed, and in December 2022 she reached out to an attorney representing the county in the McClendon jail-reform settlement agreement to raise concerns about the excessive use of force and the jail’s “apparent refusal to follow through with policies.”

The suit claims that weeks later, Torres was removed from the Early Warning System panel “without warning or being provided with a reason” in retaliation for speaking out about the excessive use of force. Torres continued to report three excessive use of force incidents between February and March.

In May, Torres’ supervisor gave her “a significant amount of extra work” as retaliation and on May 11 she was removed from the Use of Force Panel, according to the suit.

“The retaliatory conduct forced Ms. Torres out of her employment at MDC,” the suit states. “Torres suffered damages ... including lost wages, emotional distress, mental anguish, damage to reputation.”


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