Investigations

City has paid $800K for multiple complaints against Española Police Officer

ESPAÑOLA, N.M. (KRQE) - He's been accused of using excessive force for years, and it's cost his city a lot of money. According to records obtained from the City of Española, it has paid out $806,000 in settlements for complaints involving Española Police Sergeant Greg Esparza. 

Citizens in the community want to know why that police officer is still on the force. On Special Assignment, KRQE News 13 discovered why people are asking that question. 

"The amount of complaints are certainly concerning to all of us involved," said Española Mayor Javier Sanchez. 

"It's officers like him that give you guys a bad name. Honestly," Virginia Valdez told an Española Police officer in 2016. 

Valdez was referring to Española Police Sergeant Greg Esparza. 

Police lapel video from June 2016 shows another Española police officer pulling over Valdez in a van he suspects might be stolen and possibly involved in a shoplifting call at Walmart.

"Turn away from me, turn away from me and put your hands above your head and walk back. Walk back, stop right there," the officer instructs Valdez. 

Valdez complies with commands, until the point when the officer asks her to get on her knees. 

"Go ahead and get on your knees, ma'am," the officer instructs. 

"I can't," she replies. "I'm telling you to right now," the officer says. "My knee -" she said. 

"I don't give a s*** get on your knees!" The officer shouts. "I can't!" Valdez shouts back. 

That's when video shows Esparza enter the frame, taking matters into his own hands. 

Video shows Esparza grab Valdez by the arm and take her down to the ground.

When asked if this appears to be excessive force, Steve Allen, Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Albuquerque replied, "It certainly raises some red flags."

"There needs to be systems of accountability in place to make sure that when instances like this come up, they're appropriately reviewed," Allen added. 

At the time, Valdez said she was trying to tell the first officer she was disabled and has a dislocated knee, which is why she couldn't get on her knees. 

She'd just left Walmart and said she had no idea why officers were pulling her over. Her van wasn't reported stolen and she wasn't the one shoplifting. 
    
The officer claims the man they were looking for was seen in her van earlier.

"I understand that, but the way that other guy treated me was totally uncalled for," Valdez told the responding officer. 

Valdez filed a tort claim notice threatening to sue for the way Esparza handled her, and according to records obtained by KRQE, she won a $25,000 settlement. 
    
It turns out she's not the only one who's complained about Esparza's actions with the Española Police Department. 

Court records show he's named in at least seven use-of-force lawsuits or tort claims since 2012. 

According to one lawsuit, Esparza tased an unarmed paraplegic man at close range in a Sonic parking lot. Esparza claimed the man was resisting, but there's no police video of the scuffle. 

Another lawsuit claims Esparza tased an unarmed 71-year-old retired teacher in his own yard for not keeping his distance as medics tried to save the man's son from an overdose. 

The lawsuit claims Española police handcuffed and arrested the husband and wife while their son lay dying inside. 

According to court records, charges against the couple were dismissed and they won a $650,000 settlement. KRQE News 13 requested police video of the incident, but again none exists.

A few months later, another man filed a civil rights lawsuit against Esparza saying he wrongfully arrested, wrongfully charged, and assaulted him after a traffic accident. 

Esparza claims the man got in his face and yelled at him. In that case, Esparza handcuffed the driver who was rear-ended. 

The man claims Esparza saw a "pen knife" on his keys and told him, "Now it's assault with a deadly weapon."  The driver claims Esparza then grabbed his hand so hard he broke bones.

According to city records, he sued and won a $125,000 settlement. There's no video of that encounter either. 

In 2015, a concerned witness called State Police, saying an Española Police officer was tasing and dragging a man in handcuffs. 

Dispatcher: "If you've got a complaint about how the officer dealt with it, you're gonna have to start with that agency."

Caller: "My God, they're gonna kill people here."

The man allegedly being assaulted also sued. 

In his Supervisory Taser Use Report, Esparza reported using his taser on the man three times. But the man's lawsuit points out the taser's "computer chip...shows it was discharged six times in 55 seconds." 

Lack of video evidence: 

Once again, there's no video of the interaction. In fact, there's no video in most cases where Esparza is accused of using excessive force. 

"It's an issue that we're handling and we're changing," Mayor Sanchez told KRQE News 13. 

Sanchez said officers are equipped with body cameras for a reason. "We want to make sure that we have that transparency," he said. "Like it or not we live in a world where everything is being recorded and that's great because it keeps us to a higher standard."

Current policy states Española police officers are required to record video when answering calls for service. Before 2015, officers said they could decide if they wanted to record an interaction. 

In 2016, Española police contracted a private investigator to conduct an internal investigation into Greg Esparza, but due to a lack of video in his use-of-force cases, the investigator found most of the claims were "not sustained."

"There was not enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegations," the investigator wrote in his report; a line he repeated. 

The investigator also wrote, "There appears to be a trend of escalation from a minor incident to disorderly conduct by the suspects as Officer Esparza verbally interacts with them."  

"Clearly de-escalation will be a focus of this administration," Mayor Sanchez told KRQE News 13. 

New management: 

The newly elected mayor vows to bring about change, starting with the appointment of a new police chief. 

"Unfortunately, nationwide we're not seen in a very good spotlight. I want to evolve from that, I want to change that," said Louis Carlos, the new Española Police Chief who was sworn in two weeks ago. 

Carlos, a retired cop from the Santa Fe Police Department, told city councilors, "If I can demonstrate that I can lead from the front, that I can pull from the front, I know that my men and women will follow."

Allen said communities across the state need citizen police oversight to hold departments and officers accountable. 

"There needs to be great supervision," Allen added. "You need a great police chief, you need great management from the sergeant level on up."

The City of Española has paid out $806,000 in settlements for complaints involving Esparza.

"It says that we have not had the strong sense of management that I was just talking about," Mayor Sanchez told KRQE. 

Part of the mayor's plan moving forward includes more training for officers and more accountability. 

In Valdez's case, the video speaks for itself and seems to contradict Esparza's account. Most of the lapel video from the interaction with Valdez was recorded by the initial responding officer. 

Esparza's lapel video did not appear to start recording until after the take-down of Valdez. 

Even though she wasn't driving a stolen car or shoplifting, both officers ended up citing Valdez for failing to obey and for resisting or obstructing an officer. 

When she realized she was being cited for those charges, Valdez asked the initial responding officer, "Really?" 

"But understand that's the way it's gonna be said at this point, OK?" the officer replied. 

That costly takedown would end with a sarcastic exchange between Valdez and Esparza. 

"Thanks for the body slam," she told him. "All right ma'am," he replied. 

Several people told KRQE News 13 off camera they're afraid to speak out publicly because they fear retaliation, especially since Esparza is still a sergeant on the force.

When asked if he should still be on the force, Mayor Sanchez replied, "That's what I'm looking into right now. I'm not here to throw anybody under the bus, I'm here to try and assess what needs to happen."

Española Police would not disclose whether Esparza has ever been disciplined for any of these cases. 

KRQE News 13 did reach out to Esparza himself, but never heard back. 

The most recent complaint filed against him was just last month.
 


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