New Mexico city to pay $6.5M in police chokehold settlement

A New Mexico city has agreed to pay $6.5 million to the family of Mexican American man who was choked to death by a police officer.

A settlement agreement made public this week by Las Cruces, New Mexico, calls for the city to pay the family of Antonio Valenzuela within 30 days and promises the local government will embark on various police reforms. Financial terms of the settlement were not previously disclosed.

Under the settlement, Las Cruces police agreed to ban all chokeholds and fire any officer who violates the new policy — something officials say the city already does. The city also must try to adopt a warning system involving officers who use excessive force and forge a policy so officers can undergo yearly mental health exams. Any police reforms must be approved by the city council.

Valenzuela, 40, had a warrant out for his arrest because of a parole violation and fought with officers who tried to detain him after he fled from a traffic stop in February.

After a chase, then-Las Cruces Officer Christopher Smelser applied the chokehold. Smelser, who is Hispanic, can be heard on police video saying, “I’m going to (expletive) choke you out, bro.”

Valenzuela died at the scene. The coroner determined he died from asphyxial injuries and that he had methamphetamine in his system, which contributed to his death.

Smelser was later fired and faces a second-degree murder charge. He has not yet entered a plea.

Smelser’s attorney, Amy L. Orlando, said Smelser had been trained to use the hold and the murder charge was a political move meant to grab headlines.

The charge came as Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Demonstrators have put pressure on police departments to change policies involving the use of force and interactions with Black, Latino, and Native American residents.

The death of Valenzuela generated protests in Las Cruces, 46 miles (74 kilometers) north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Months later, there were renewed protests after Floyd’s death.

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Associated Press journalist Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity Team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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