The Death of Daniel Saenz and El Paso Police Impunity

saenz_shootingExcerpted video at the bottom.

For a number of years I have written numerous accounts of El Paso Police misconduct. I have shared with you many examples of documented police misbehavior that has resulted in numerous monetary settlements paid by the taxpayers through the City of El Paso. In 2004, various Courts of Inquiry were convened to look into allegations of police wrongdoing. Except for one case, the Courts of Inquiry resulted with no findings of misconduct. In the cases where the city has settled allegations of misconduct much of the documentation is sealed, out of reach of those trying to determine the extent of the misconduct. Although much evidence suggests there is much El Paso police abuse of authority the fact remains that much of it remains unproven because investigations are hidden behind walls of privacy and court orders limiting access to documents. This allows the police department to control the public perception and proclaim innocence of misconduct.

Impunity is the lack of the rule of law. Impunity is corruption. It is the failure of the government to apply justice equally regardless of economic or social status. Impunity is recognized internationally as a system of patronage where certain sectors of the community are protected while others are persecuted. In the case of El Paso, I have shared with you numerous examples of impunity within the community. Cases like the mother of a sitting congressman whose company pleaded guilty to money structuring while not one individual has been held accountable for the money laundering. Like the case of a sitting city representative, whose case of allegedly assaulting a city employee languishes in some sort of investigative limbo. This same city representative was previously investigated for allegedly assaulting another individual and that investigation just disappeared.

Look through the archives of my blog and you will find many instances of questionable police department actions and yet accountability seems to be nonexistent. The problem is that investigative documents are hidden from the public and thus no accountability is apparent.

To be clear, I know there are many police officers that do the right thing, some I consider my friends. However, I believe that within in the ranks of the El Paso Police Department exists a culture, supported from the top that trickles down through the ranks, that there are two standards of justice in El Paso. One is justice for everyday citizens and the other is justice for those that certain elite in the city protect. Unfortunately, when a society allows two standards of justice to exist it gives rise to impunity where the rule of law eventually ceases to exist.

On March 8, 2013, a handcuffed man, Daniel R. Saenz, was shot and killed by an El Paso police officer in the parking garage of the downtown jail. A grand jury declined to indict El Paso Police officer Jose Flores for the death. According the public pronouncements of the lawyer representing Flores the Grand Jury declined to indict because of the “totality of the circumstances”.

On my blog, “Indicting a Ham Sandwich” I explained to you how the Grand Jury process can be manipulated. However, the city and the police department use the fact that the Grand Jury did not indict as vindication of the process. Again, actual documentation is hard to attain because everything is conveniently hidden through judicial processes, although certain pieces make it out once in a while.

Some of these pieces are conveniently released because they allow the public conversation to be managed by those in authority. For example, speculation of drug use by the deceased was communicated. Even after the video was released to the community, commentary about actions by Saenz while in custody are presented yet supporting proof such as video is conveniently missing.

For example, the police officer’s lawyer is quoted as saying that Daniel Saenz had previously “fronted” his handcuffs while in custody earlier in the day at the Pebble Hills Regional Command. “Fronting” is a process by which a prisoner takes his handcuffed hands and moves them to the front while still cuffed. The lawyer is also quoted as stating that the prisoner had been tased five times earlier that day.

This is important commentary that manages the public perception of the incident yet no video proof is offered about these two important events. If the perception is allowed to remain unchallenged in the community consciousness then the perception is that a body builder, high on drugs was an immediate danger to the officer and thus the officer had no other choice but to shoot the prisoner.

On Monday, June 16, 2014, a video was released by the City of El Paso from various cameras at the downtown jail complex that captured some of the events that led to the shooting death of Daniel Saenz.

Conveniently absent from the video are the incidents where Saenz had been tased earlier in the day or when he allegedly “fronted” his restraints. Too convenient, especially when you see a 43-minute video that is a compilation of various cameras in various locations at the downtown jail. How convenient that such a detailed video exists at the downtown jail and yet no video apparently exists where Saenz allegedly fronted his handcuffs or was tased numerous times.

Is it because the truth is an inconvenient thing?

The video itself raises many questions that are conveniently ignored by city officials and the local news media. I realize that a video is not a complete picture of the events of the day. Some may even argue that deriving any conclusion from the video itself is unfair. The fact, though, is that we have little documented information to go on because everything is shrouded in official judicial secrecy.

However, we can glean some important questions that demand answers from the video. Questions, that if allowed to remain unanswered and coupled with all of the other evidence that has been gathered by many individuals, only fuels the notion that impunity runs amok in El Paso.

There are two important things that I need to point out about the video. I cannot build a timeline of the events depicted on it because there is no time reference from which to derive one. I also do not know how much of the video has been left out. There is also no audio. The sequence of events is not clear, however they do not matter with the issues I will be raising. I am going to focus my commentary on events that are clear from the video itself.

I found a 43-minute video on Youtube posted by a user using the handle “El Paso Seanz”. I do not know who the user is nor was I able to communicate with the user. The video is longer than the one published by the news media; however, it includes the excerpts published by the news outlets.

From that video, I counted at least nine different cameras in different locations at the downtown jail that recorded some of the events of the incident.

From the very beginning of the video compilation, it is clear that the individual purported to be Daniel Saenz is handcuffed behind the back. For much of the video, Saenz is on the floor, either in a seated position or flat on his back. There are two individuals who have direct contact with the handcuffed individual up until the point where the Fire Department and ambulance services shows up to administer first aid and transport him for medical attention.

It is important to note that throughout the video compilation, there are only two individuals who have direct contact with the handcuffed individual, although many people can be seen witnessing or within area of the different videos of the prisoner being dragged across the floor. I will explain why this is important in a moment.

For now, there is one police officer and a guard directly handling Saenz throughout the video. The officer is presumed to be Jose Flores. The guard remains unidentified at this point.

Of the official individuals there appear to be at least three police officers, four guards and one Texas Department of Public Safety officer. There were also at least 10 civilians, either prisoners or employees working at the jail.

The video shows Saenz being dragged from different locations within the jail, at least one ride in an elevator and finally out to some type of parking garage. What the videos the news media have failed to show is that for the majority of the time Daniel Saenz seems uncooperative in that he is being dragged from room to room by two individuals but he did not appear to be belligerent up until a few moments before he was shot.

This is important because as Saenz is being dragged by two public officials through multiple rooms in the jail and at least one elevator ride; all of this was being witnessed by at least 15 different individuals by what I could see in the video. At no time did it appear that anyone, other than the two individuals dragging Saenz around attempt to intercede. Therefore, it seems to me that Saenz did not seem to be a threat since other officers did nothing but stare at the spectacle. One would think that police officers would step in to assist if one or two of their own are being threatened by an uncooperative prisoner.

Therefore, question number one is why no other officer assisted if Daniel Saenz was a threat to officer safety. Question number two is why was Saenz not being better restrained if, according to the media reports had to be tased multiple times previously that day or had been observed “fronting” his handcuffed hands earlier.

According to the officer’s lawyer, Daniel Saenz had been shown to be dangerous yet no attempt was made to better secure him or have other officers assist.

In other words, in the supposed secure facility of the jail, no one in authority seemed to care that a supposed dangerous prisoner did not require handling by more than two officers. Apparently, everyone seemed to think that the prisoner could be managed by the two individuals dragging him throughout the facility.

Keep in mind that the Flores’ lawyer has argued that Saenz was so dangerous that he could have used his handcuffed hands as weapons.

Eventually the videos get to the point where Daniel Saenz is dragged outside, apparently waiting for transportation to be taken to the hospital. He is still on the ground. Flores, the police officer leaves the guard with Daniel Saenz outside while the officer goes back inside to retrieve some items. It is hard to tell how long the guard was left outside, by himself with Saenz but the video shows that throughout the whole time the guard was alone with Saenz, Daniel Saenz did not seem to threaten, attempt to get up or did the guard use any type of force to restrain Saenz who sat on the ground.

In essence, a dangerous prisoner is left alone with a guard for some time as the officer went back into the jail to retrieve items. This begs the question, how dangerous was Saenz that no one thought to better restrain him or have other officers help in controlling him?

When Flores, the police officer returns, it looks like he has some type of conversation with Saenz. After this, he and the guard help Daniel Saenz, still handcuffed behind the back, up to his feet.

It is at this point Daniel Saenz begins to struggle against police officer Jose Flores and the unnamed guard. From the dragging through the jail and his struggles, Saenz’ pants have fallen exposing his buttocks. He is shirtless throughout the video.

Although he continues to struggle, both officers are able to pin him to the ground.

Although it is clear that neither officer has anytime to call for help using their radios, a question that needs to be asked, how secure is the downtown jail when a prisoner can struggle with officers for a few minutes and there is no alarm mechanism to notify other officers?

How secure can the facility be if there is no alarm system in place to alert everyone of a problem?

The police force has argued that Flores shot Saenz because he posed a danger and, or because the officer’s gun was bumped in the struggle and the gun went off.

You can see from the video that once Daniel Saenz was pinned to the ground he never got up again and was on the ground when he was shot.

As a matter of fact, the video shows that before shooting Saenz, the officer had retreated a step or two and grabbed something from his waist belt, presumably his taser before pulling his gun. The video also shows that the officer may have lost his radio while reaching for the taser.

The media has reported that the officer drew his weapon in attempt to gain control of the situation. However, from the video, Saenz is clearly on the ground and still handcuffed behind his back, albeit struggling to get up and kicking.

I then have to ask what kind of training do El Paso Police officers receive that they don’t know enough not to draw their gun on someone who is still on the ground.

First, reaching for the gun creates an unnecessary risk for everyone, including the officer. It distracts the officer from regaining control of the prisoner. More importantly, how can two individuals supposedly trained lose control of a restrained prisoner, regardless of his strength?

Keep in mind that if Saenz was such a threat why was he left alone with the guard? Why were other officers in the area not tasked to help with an uncooperative prisoner?

Also, if you see the complete video you will note that Jose Flores, the officer,  spent a significant amount of time throughout the video using his cell phone and taking off and putting on his gloves. He has time for this although Saenz had been deemed dangerous.

At this point, all we can do is speculate because we do not have all of the information.

We do not have all of the information because it is hidden behind a judicial wall of investigations and privacy.

There is an individual who was shot while handcuffed behind the back in an area where there were many trained police and sheriff’s officers. The video shows that the deceased was on the ground for the majority of the time. Although we have been told that Daniel Saenz was dangerous he was left alone with one guard in the parking garage where he was shot for some time. We have been told that he was dangerous and yet no other officers, some of who witnessed Saenz being dragged inside the facility, were tasked to help manage the prisoner.

We assume that police officers are trained to handle a combative prisoner and yet two trained officers resorted to shooting a handcuffed man.

Although the community deserves answers it will not get any because it is all hidden behind investigative processes, that to me is nothing more than a tool used to provide cover for a rogue police agency.

There is a word for this, it is called impunity.

About the video:

I compiled about a five-minute video from the larger 43-minute video for those who do not want to see the complete video. I extracted what I consider frames to be representative of the longer video.

For those that do not want to see the actual shooting please stop the video at the 5-minute mark.

Before anyone accuses me of bias, I removed the entire section where the officer performed CPR in an attempt to revive Saenz. For those that would like to see the entire video you can do so by visiting this link.

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