CURTIS C. WYNNE/NEWS-SUN
JAL — Facing a tort claim of wrongful death and excessive force, the City of Jal settled for $5 million. The city’s insurance company will pay $1 million of that.
Claims brought by the estate of Hector Nava, 45, of San Antonio, Texas, alleged excessive use of tasers while Nava was in police custody, although a coroner’s report cites drug overdose as cause of death.
A report from New Mexico’s Office of Medical Investigator (OMI), obtained by the News-Sun through an Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) request, lists the death as “accidental” and caused by “toxic effects of methamphetamine,” a drug found in the deceased’s urine.
The Jal City Council last week approved a settlement agreement with the estate receiving $4 million from the city. The city’s insurance carrier, the New Mexico Self Insurance Fund, agreed to pay $1 million rather than possibly endure years of litigation in court.
“The settlement agreement reflects our shared commitment to advancing progress for our community,” according to a prepared statement approved by the city council. “The city believes a settlement was the best decision given the difficult circumstances. Litigating this issue would have taken a painful toll on all parties involved, as well as on the community as a whole, and would have imposed additional costs on taxpayers.”
According to police reports, officers used electronic shock instruments more than a dozen times as Nava struggled against being arrested and repeatedly refused to enter a police car for transport to the city jail.
The OMI’s report noted multiple marks on several parts of the body, indicative of the electronic shocks, but the medical investigators concluded they likely didn’t cause death. Reports indicated Nava had been alive and moving his legs at least 10 minutes after the last shock incident.
On the rare occasion that a taser causes death, such as by heart attack, death is immediate, the OMI report noted.
Nevertheless, Jal Mayor Stephen Aldridge and City Manager Matt White acknowledged a need for additional police training, not only in Jal but in other New Mexico cities as well.
“We got with our insurance company, New Mexico Self Insurance Fund, and after reviewing the case and the police report, we all decided it was in our best interest to settle it out of court,” White said. “All of our officers have been retrained in taser and in de-escalation of incidents, but that’s an on-going process of making sure we have everything up to speed.”
The incident raised doubts about police training statewide.
“We are working with the (insurance company) to make sure this training is offered statewide, not just us. We found some gaps in the state training,” White said. “This is not offered evenly across the board. Some cities get different training, so we’re working with them to make sure this training is offered everywhere.”
According to the police narratives, an on-duty officer pumping fuel into his patrol unit around 11:30 p.m. on July 30, 2021, noticed a white pickup “slowly creeping around the parking lot with his head lights off.”
The detailed report continues to relate the vehicle circled gas pumps, entered and backed out of a dead-end area, and turned east onto New Mexico Hwy. 128 without headlights, at which time the officer began pursuit as soon as he could return the pump nozzle to its slot and get in his patrol unit.
After initially losing the unlighted pickup on the dark highway, the officer returned to the parking lot to find the white pickup there again, circling the pumps. The officer stopped and approached the driver, later identified as Nava.
According to the officer’s report, Nava’s erratic behavior, failure to state his name and unresponsive answers to other questions led to a call for a K9 unit and the officers’ decision to take him to the city jail for further questioning. Nava resisted arrest and refused to seat himself in the patrol unit.
The police reports state at least 12 occasions of using a taser to force compliance and subdue the struggling, but officers eventually forced Nava into the back of a second patrol unit.
After Nava was taken to a holding cell at the Jal Police Department, handcuffs were removed, he mumbled and made leg movements, then failed to respond to questions, according to the police reports. He reportedly stopped breathing shortly after and officers began and continued life-saving techniques while awaiting emergency medical service assistance.
After EMTs arrived and Nava failed to respond to their efforts, he was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m. July 31, 2021.
“Tragic circumstances like the incident involving Mr. Nava require us to make changes in how we operate,” the city’s news release stated.
With a third party investigation still in process, the details of any operational changes remain unknown. White noted the city is engaged in improving officer training statewide.
“The city is committed to doing a top-down, bottom-up review of all police department policies, evaluating them in comparison to best practices and national standards,” the release continued. “We are also working with the New Mexico Self-Insurers’ Fund to implement a statewide training program to ensure our officers have the most up-to-date training and policies.”
Mayor Aldridge concluded, “It’s an unfortunate and regrettable incident.”
Curtis Wynne’s email address is email@example.com.