Something Stinks

48 hours ago, Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser was terminated from employment with the LCPD after being charged with involuntary manslaughter by the DA's office in the February death of Antonio Valenzuela.

Smelser used a vascular neck restraint on Valenzuela during a violent struggle while attempting to take him into custody, after Valenzuela fled a traffic stop on foot. The stop was originated by an LCPD sergeant and Valenzuela was a passenger in the vehicle. Another LCPD officer arrived on scene and assisted Smelser in the foot pursuit and arrest and was present when the neck restraint was applied. The neck restraint technique was taught in the LCPD academy Smelser graduated from and was a departmental-approved use of force technique.

Reportedly, Valenzuela had a knife in the pocket of his trousers, refused to comply with orders to stop resisting, and because he could not be brought under control using conventional use of force techniques, the level of force was elevated. Unfortunately, it resulted in Valenzuela dying.

The autopsy showed that Valenzuela died of asphyxiation AND complications caused by the drugs in his system: amphetamine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl.

The purpose of this article is not to review evidence and determine if the charge of involuntary manslaughter against Smelser is appropriate. Whether or not he is guilty is for a jury to decide. But the timing is just a bit suspicious. A representative of the DA's office has said that the ongoing events around the country regarding the death of George Floyd have nothing to do with the timing of the charge.


I was with LCPD for 22 years. I worked homicides. The autopsy reports were generally available within a week. On a busy weekend, it might take a couple of days longer. Toxicology reports could take 4-6 weeks, depending on Office of the Medical Investigator caseload. Safe to say that the DA's office has had the results of the autopsy since early March. If they had to wait on toxicology reports to decide whether or not they wanted to charge Smelser, add another six weeks maximum. Sufficient time for the state police to interview witnesses and the officers involved. So why the delay? If nothing else, the toxicology reports showing the amount of drugs in Valenzuela's system justify the elevated use of force by the officers.

Consider other factors: there is a joint task force made up of city/county/state officers that investigate officer-involved shootings and deaths of suspects in Doña Ana County. That task force was involved in this investigation until it was suddenly taken away and given to the state police. Who ordered that and why? What were the findings of the task force, if any, prior to having the case taken away?

What were the results of the LCPD internal affairs investigation into the actions of the officers involved? Was a determination made on whether or not the actions of the officers were within policy, or was the matter handled in the politically correct fashion of sitting on the case until the DA's office decided what to do? If you aren't familiar with the internal functionings of a law enforcement agency, the popular manner in which to handle sensitive cases is to just sit on it. If the officer is cleared by the DA's office, then the internal will show no wrongdoing. If the officer is charged with a crime, the internal will show he violated policy. It's a typical course of action for police administrators .

One other thing, and that is that LCPD Chief Gallagher comes from the NYPD. In 1993 the NYPD banned any use of force on suspects that included any pressure to the throat or windpipe which prevents or hinders breathing or reduces intake of air. In 2014 Eric Garner died during an NYPD arrest in which a chokehold was applied. Why wasn't this practice banned in the LCPD when Gallagher took over? Reportedly, the LCPD use of force instructors talked him into keeping it but I have not confirmed that information.

As I mentioned in a previous paragraph, I was a cop for 22 years. I was involved in the arrests of violent suspects who were combative, on drugs, were sometimes armed and tried to draw weapons like knives or guns to use against officers during a struggle, and/or tried to take our firearms from our holsters. It is tough, dirty, dangerous work and that degree of peril is multiplied significantly when a suspect is high on drugs, does not feel pain and is willing to employ any action to prevent himself from being taken into custody.

I entitled this "Something Stinks" because it does. It is the smell of political correctness and shame on the DAs office for using ongoing events in the country to prosecute a good cop.

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J.R. Lonsway served 22 years with the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police department and retired as a Deputy Chief of Police. After retirement he served with the U.S. Department of State as a police advisor in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, Lebanon, and South Sudan. He is a former U.S. Marine.

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