Associated Press
Thursday, June 11, 2020

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - Video recently released by authorities in Las Cruces, New Mexico, shows a traffic stop and struggle with police that led to the death of Antonio Valenzuela after he ran from officers in late February.

Charges have been filed against one of the officers involved, and city officials plan to discuss use of force policies during a meeting next week.

In the early hours of Feb. 29, officers asked the 40-year-old Valenzuela to step out of the vehicle he was a passenger in after learning he had a warrant for his arrest for a parole violation. Valenzuela, whose criminal record included felony drug violations, bolted.

Officers gave chase, tasing him to no avail. There was a struggle when officers caught him and police can be heard on body camera video repeatedly ordering Valenzuela to give them his hands so he could be cuffed. He continued struggling as officers told him numerous times to give up.

At one point, Officer Christopher Smelser uses a chokehold to gain control of Valenzuela, who became unresponsive and was later pronounced dead.

The police department started the process to fire Smelser after autopsy results were released last week and the district attorney’s office charged him with involuntary manslaughter.

The autopsy found that Valenzuela died from asphyxial injuries, and that the methamphetamine in his system played a role. His neck had a deep muscle hemorrhage, his Adam’s apple was crushed and his ribs were fractured. There also was swelling in his brain.

The report said the methamphetamine likely caused a rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and an increased demand for oxygen.

After a hearing Monday before a magistrate judge, Smelser was released on bond pending trial.

His attorney, Amy Orlando, said he has received death threats since the autopsy results became public. She told the judge that Smelser had a clean disciplinary record, no criminal history and family ties in the community.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that a police sergeant testified that Smelser had earned commendations for his performance since joining the force in 2016.

An attorney representing Valenzuela’s family wants the district attorney to elevate the charges against Smelser to second-degree murder.

The hearing came after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis fueled protests around the world and reignited calls for police reforms. Floyd died May 25 from asphyxiation after an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he was handcuffed on the ground.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she would consider addressing use of force during an upcoming special legislative session, and state Attorney General Hector Balderas this week renewed his call for uniform policies to be adopted for municipal and county law enforcement agencies across the state.

In Las Cruces, city officials plan to discuss use of force during a work session June 15. Advocates are pushing nationwide for police departments to ban chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, and to require officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting, among other things.

Many departments already practice some of the policies. Following Valenzuela’s death, Las Cruces police began prohibiting the use of neck restraints during apprehensions.

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