State police investigators waited four days to interview Española police Officer Jerry Apodaca and his partner, Officer Ritchie Trujillo, after Apodaca shot and killed 16-year-old Victor Villalpando.
The teen’s June 8 shooting death has raised questions by the victim’s family and criminal justice experts on how investigators have handled the case. One question that still remains is whether the teen pointed a gun at Apodaca, as Española police have said. But another question being raised by criminology experts and former law enforcement officers contacted by The New Mexican is why it took so long to interview the officers involved.
New Mexico State Police, which is investigating the shooting, said such interviews hinge on the schedules of investigators and the police officers they are questioning. Sgt. Damyan Brown, a state police spokesman, said the agency has no set timeline for conducting interviews after officer-involved shootings. The Investigations Bureau schedules the interviews at an “agreeable” time for all parties involved, he said.
Robert Taylor, a former officer with the Portland Police Department, criticized that comment. “That’s just not an appropriate statement,” he said.
“I’ve never conducted an interview of a suspect or have heard of any agency interviewing an officer on the officer’s timetable,” said Taylor, a professor and director of the justice administration at the University of Texas in Dallas. “That’s ridiculous.”
He said four days is “too long” to interview officers involved in a shooting because it can lead to inaccurate statements about the incident.
Jeffrey Noble, a retired deputy chief with the Irvine Police Department in California, agreed that investigative interviews with officers should be conducted within a few days — primarily to prevent potential collaboration between officers who might want to cover up any wrongdoing.
But other experts say there are no hard and fast guidelines, and that officers often need a few days to rest before going into an interview because the shooting can be stressful — which could lead to inaccurate statements.
State police have released few details of Villalpando’s shooting and have not said if the teen had a gun. They have only said that Villalpando called 911 on June 8 and reported that a suspicious person around Riverside Drive and Corlett Road was armed and hitting himself with a stick. In the phone call, Villalpando identified himself as “James,” state police said in a statement. When officers arrived at the site, Villalpando “pointed a weapon” at them, and one of the officers fired a single shot, the statement said.
The shooting comes amid intense scrutiny over a rash of police shootings in New Mexico, involving the Albuquerque Police Department as well as the state police. In April, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report criticizing the Albuquerque department for a pattern of police brutality and unnecessary use of deadly force.
Because the Department of Justice report has shown New Mexico law enforcement agencies in a bad light, said Thomas Grover, a former sergeant with the Albuquerque Police Department, law enforcement agencies should be as transparent as possible.
The Justice Department report doesn’t criticize APD for the length of time it took to interview officers involved in shootings, but it did question the department’s methods of conducting those interviews. APD’s policy was to interview officers two days after the shooting, but sometimes it would take up to a week, Grover said.
Grover acknowledged an officer should have some time to rest after a traumatic situation. But “four days is way too long,” he said.
“It’s a balancing test of two things. If you do it too soon, the cops are still under the psychological symptoms of being stressed from the incident, which presents barriers in providing a decent accounting of what happened,” Grover said. “But if you wait too long, they’re subject to suggestion and impression about what happened in the event.”
He added: “The more barriers there are to get information on what happened from the officer, the less weight the interview is going to carry.”
Patrick O’Bryan, a retired Reno Police Department officer who has nine years of SWAT team experience, said whenever one of his team members shot at a suspect, everyone involved would be interviewed within three hours of the episode. He said New Mexico State Police should have interviewed the Española officers as soon as possible.
Other experts said the four-day wait is part of national trend police departments are practicing because studies show a cooling-off period can provide more accurate statements from an officer who shot at a suspect.
“The trend nationally is to delay post-shooting interviews for at least 48 hours after the incident,” said Tim Dees, a former police trainer for the Oregon Department of Public Safety. “Although it’s not intuitive, waiting those two days usually produces a much clearer and accurate account of the incident.”
John A. Eterno, a former police captain for the New York Police Department, agreed, saying the department had a 48-hour rule, in which police officers would not be interviewed until after that time.
“An officer who shots a 16-year-old child and kills that person, it would not be unusual for that officer to be experiencing stress,” said Eterno, now a professor of criminal justice at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y. “And it would not be unusual for a police department to wait a few days to question those officers.”
Alexis Artwohl, a Tucson, Ariz.-based behavioral science consultant to law enforcement departments, said, “There’s really no compelling reason in these very dramatic incidents … to rush to interview them for fear that they might forget some details.”
Apart from psychological stress that could delay an officer interview, there are also legal considerations. Like any homicide suspect, an officer has the right to consult with an attorney, and he or she needs to understand their rights before going into an interrogation room, the experts said.
Matt Martinez, the head of the Santa Fe police union, said it’s best to reserve judgment on an officer who shot and killed a suspect until a full investigation is conducted. He said such incidents not only reflect negatively on the police department but also affect the whole community.
“I don’t think [an officer-involved shooting] leaves a black eye for the department,” Martinez said. “It leaves a black eye for the entire community, because it hurts the whole community.”
Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 986-3062 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ujohnnyg.