• J.R. Lonsway

Thank you, Mr. Attorney General

In a letter that is a bit mystifying, Doña Ana County District Attorney Mark D'Antonio wrote a letter dated June 8 to Attorney General Hector Balderas requesting a review of New Mexico law enforcement policy & procedure regarding the use of VNR (vascular neck restraint) and other related chokeholds in cases where deadly force is not authorized, in light of the Antonio Valenzuela case. D'Antonio goes on to state that he believes there should be statewide uniformity in the use of deadly and non-lethal force.


I say the letter is mystifying because it appears that D'Antonio still supports VNR as long as it fits a deadly force scenario. I support banning VNR entirely, because if it is left to interpretation as to whether or not an officer was justified in using "deadly force VNR" in a situation where his, or his partner's, life were in danger, we will see more cops unjustly charged with crimes because of shifting political winds.


D'Antonio's letter comes amidst nationwide demands for police reform but falls short and is nothing more than a shallow note of political correctness following a session of musical chairs with regards to a decision on criminal charges against the LCPD officer. It could have been written three months ago but the DA's office reportedly found no wrongdoing on the part of the officer at that time and said as much to members of LCPD.


If you are not familiar with the manner in which law enforcement training and policy are conducted in New Mexico, there is a law enforcement board in Santa Fe which the AG chairs. By law, it consists of a sheriff, a municipal police chief, a state police officer, an attorney who is employed in a DA's office, a person of sergeant's rank or below, a certified police chief of a New Mexico tribe or pueblo, and two citizen-at-large members, neither of whom shall be a police officer or retired police officer or have familial or financial connections to a police officer or any agency or department for which a police officer works. The governor appoints any vacancies.


I include this information because law enforcement agencies within the state must conform to minimal standards set by this board, including use of force requirements. It appears that AG Balderas is seeking legislative action to ban chokeholds and he also wants to implement mandatory body cams for all agencies. Body cams would have to be funded by the state, because many departments just don't have the money for them.


Still not clear what additional evidence was discovered to justify charging the LCPD officer with involuntary manslaughter. What changed between March and June? If the justification for charging the LCPD officer with involuntary manslaughter is that he applied the technique wrongly, and therefore Mr. Valenzuela died, my response to that is, "So every time it has been correctly applied no-one has died?" I hope that there is not a training officer foolish enough to take the stand and testify to that, just as I hope there is no testimony given that the VNR technique taught by LCPD was only supposed to be used as a last resort. If that is the case, I want to see a policy that was in writing to justify that stance.


I also wonder, since LCPD said it was an approved use of force, why it isn't included in department policy and procedure. And by the way, how often were refresher courses given on VNR? Officers qualify with their firearms several times per year, and they have mandatory defensive tactics training where they are reminded about acceptable areas to strike with the baton and how to use pepper spray, what about VNR?


I had VNR taught to me in Marine Corps boot camp in 1973, but back then it was simply called a chokehold. It works great in a training scenario; we recruits were made to pair off and got to put each other out using the hold and experienced firsthand the results. But that was with a cooperative training partner under supervision of drill instructors, not a combative suspect high on drugs and armed with a bladed instrument. It was taught again in the LCPD academy I attended in 1979.


Here is an interesting fact: in the 1980's a suspect was taken into custody by LCPD who was combative and remained so even after handcuffing. He was put in the backseat of a patrol car and kicked out the windows. The arresting officer called a supervisor who responded to the scene. Leg irons (cuffs that go around the ankles) were put on the suspect, and then another set of cuffs were used to connect the leg irons to the cuffed wrists. This was a common procedure then, and was referred to as hog tying. The suspect was placed in the back seat face down and the officer drove to the station to pick up some paperwork before going to the jail. When he came out a couple of minutes later, the suspect was unresponsive. EMTs were called, but the suspect died in the backseat.


An autopsy showed that the suspect had died due to his struggle with the police and the alcohol/cocaine in his system. The pathologist strongly recommended that the technique of hog tying be discontinued because it restricted breathing and was a contributing factor in the man's death, along with the drugs. Hog tying had been used for years and worked well, until that night. Neither the arresting officer nor his supervisor faced criminal charges. It was a department-approved use of force that had been around for decades and there was no criminal intent. It was immediately discontinued. Today we would call that ban "police reform" because it disallowed the continued use of a practice that had deadly consequences.


Would Valenzuela be alive today if VNR had been banned by LCPD long ago? Maybe, maybe not. He might very well have died anyway from the drugs in his system following the struggle; or, we might have two dead cops on our hands because he succeeded in getting that bladed tool out of his pocket, or grabbed an officer's gun. We don't know and never will. What I do know from investigating violent crime over the years is that sometimes people are choked in cases of domestic violence or mutual combat, and have physical injuries consistent with Valenzuela's, but they don't die.


I applaud the AG's approach to ban VNR entirely. This is how police reform is accomplished. It is not accomplished by throwing young officers under the bus and ruining their careers and reputations for the sake of political correctness.

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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