Three Albuquerque police officers used excessive force when they shot a 17-year-old fleeing from them, used excessive force when they made him kneel on the ground and used even more force when he held up a tree branch, and never provided a statement to the District Attorney’s Office for the county where they work, federal prosecutors said.
Despite finding that those allegations were true, the federal government did not press criminal charges against the officers, despite putting the case together over two years. As a result, the police officers did not face any consequences of their misconduct.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” said the mother of the 17-year-old who was killed on 11 April 2017, the night that police say he fired a stolen semi-automatic pistol at them. “Why aren’t they being charged with murder?”
Two of the officers were working on a midnight detail with a third officer, and the third officer was in the driver’s seat of their patrol car. The gun, which had been stolen, was found along with almost $5,000 in cash when they searched him, a third-grader, in his Albuquerque home.
The teen was wanted for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
A federal grand jury in Albuquerque accused Officers Anthony Villegas, Eric Griego and Dominique Perez of using excessive force, but instead of charging them criminally, the federal government opted to make an executive order instead.
The unlawful use of police force is a federal civil rights violation and violates the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In order to prosecute it, the government must first identify and charge the officers who violated the civil rights of the suspect. Federal prosecutors claim that Griego and Perez used excessive force when they shot at the teen as he ran down the street with a gun in his hand. At least one of the officers had guns pointed at the teen as he fired shots, but they didn’t fire at him and he died from being hit twice in the back and once in the head, even though he was taken down with no shots fired.
The federal government also says that Villegas and Perez used excessive force when they ordered the teen to kneel on the ground, where he held up a small tree branch. All three officers failed to perform body cameras on a night when they are familiar with the teen having been called to his home eight times and carpenter when they tried to steal the teen’s TV. Perez used a gun to his forehead as Villegas kneed him.
When the teen got to his feet, he shot at them in an alley. He continued to shoot at them from the alley, but the shots missed because the officer in the driver’s seat, who identified himself as Villegas, quickly took cover behind a car. The officer in the car had his gun drawn and fired his gun, but at the boy only twice.
The other officers then fired 9mm bullets at the teen. Villegas and Perez are not charged because they gave statements to the District Attorney, but the other officer chose not to. The shooting was “excessive,” said a statement released by the US Attorney’s Office, which investigates the deaths of people in police custody in the US.
But as the two-year process of investigating their conduct dragged on, the Albuquerque Police Department did not discipline the officers.
“What’s it going to take for them to finally hold somebody accountable?” said Maureen Harper, who is married to the teen’s father. “It’s not right.”
Ethel and Eli Perez, the dead teen’s parents. Photograph: U.S. Attorney’s Office
The federal government’s finding that three Albuquerque police officers did not use excessive force in the 18-year-old’s death is one that left the victim’s parents stunned and wondering why the city seemed to want to look the other way.
“The community just needs answers,” said Ethel Perez, the teen’s mother. “We have to know if they’re going to stop killing our children, or if it’s just going to continue.”