EL PASO, Texas (KTSM/KTEP) — After an El Paso Police Department Internal Affairs investigation ultimately cleared all seven officers involved in the incident leading up to Daniel Diaz’s death in April 2021, Diaz’s family was left wondering how the Department investigated the use of force used by the seven responding officers.
“Autopsy reports are telling us that the manner of death was homicide. Then for us, it’s ‘who killed him?’ Improper use of force is what killed him,” Daniel’s brother-in-law Ben Miranda said.
El Paso Police said the techniques used that evening were trained to deal with people resisting arrest.
“The program is called Hicks. It prepares officers for combative suspects, defending themselves, affecting arrests to a degree,” EPPD Spokesperson Sgt. Robert Gomez explained to KTSM and KTEP.
A first responding officer to the Lunch Box wrote in a statement shared with the Texas Rangers that she observed Diaz in some mental distress.
El Paso Police has an integrated Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) that works with officers in collaboration with Emergence Health Network to respond to incidents involving people undergoing mental health crises.
Although all CIT units are trained to deal with mental health calls, EPPD officers do not have the level of extensive training the CIT teams receive.
“Annual training and our refresher courses do often touch on your individuals that are going through distress,” Sgt. Gomez said. Adding that the Department is open to additional training. “With staffing shortages, we have to balance training with response, and it becomes difficult,” said Sgt. Gomez.
Diaz’s family believes the officers did not use the proper techniques to calm down the situation, but for officers, Sgt. Gomez says de-escalation is not always an option.
“Yes, we do get trained on how to apply force. That is very, very dictated by the situation. So I have to disengage depending on the circumstances,” Sgt. Gomez explains.
Referring to the circumstances in Diaz’s case, he says officers used methods they were trained for.
“You know, this person ripped open a locked door. I’m sure it was very hard to get his hands from the front of his body to the back of his body, and the officers did what they felt was necessary to get the situation under control,” Sgt. Gomez said.
Diaz’s family, however, has another point of view.
“If it’s allowed by policy, the responding police officers can strike people in the head, then we should probably be having a conversation about ‘should police officers be allowed to hit people in the head or not?'” Ben Miranda said.
“I can only tell you that those techniques are authorized under certain circumstances and based on the investigation and the outcome of it. I can only assume that they were authorized because the officers were exonerated by the board,” said Sgt. Gomez.
The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB), part of EPPD’s Internal Affairs Department, comprises six civilians selected by the police chief and six sworn EPPD personnel, with the Assistant Chief as Chair. They are the ones who ultimately decide what repercussions officers face if it is determined they applied excessive or deadly use of force.
This happens after the investigation into the incident is completed.
“We have three independent investigations, so it’s very transparent, and it’s run in three different agencies,” Sgt. Gomez told KTSM.
For any in-custody death, the three agencies include El Paso Police’s Crimes Against Persons (CAP) unit, which is in charge of the criminal investigation; Internal Affairs, which handles the administrative investigation; and an independent Texas Rangers investigation.
In Diaz’s case, the seven officers involved provided Texas Rangers with written statements four to nine days after the incident. No interviews were conducted.
CAP concluded its investigation in August 2021, four months after Diaz’s death. The following June, the Texas Rangers closed their investigation. However, the EPPD Internal Affairs investigation wasn’t finished until March of 2023 — nearly two years after Diaz’s death.
“I understand the family wants to know, and I understand that they, you know, consider filing lawsuits. But our primary concern is to find out exactly what happened,” Sgt. Gomez said.
Diaz’s family, however, felt it left them in the dark.
“I do know that, you know, we do keep in touch with families or people involved in incidents and give them the updates, the work they were able to,” said Sgt. Gomez.
“My father-in-law was not contacted. My brother-in-law was not contacted. We were not contacted to ask questions, to ask questions about that,” Ben Miranda said. “We never even got his belongings.”
The family requested video and documents right after Diaz’s death but didn’t receive them until almost two years later, which coincided with the end of an internal investigation, leaving the family with about a month before the statute of limitations expired — ending the opportunity to sue the City.
Before this, the City denied them records, stating the case was under investigation at then-District Attorney Yvonne Rosales’ office. An Assistant DA within her office disputed any investigation within their office.
When KTSM asked the City Attorney’s office how they go about releasing public records from the police department, they responded in a statement, saying, “Our office relies on EPPD records staff to determine whether an EPPD case is still open as a pending investigation or was referred for prosecution to the DA’s office.”
But police say otherwise.
“We just give all the records that you’re asking for to them [the City Attorney’s office]. What’s released is based on what they determine, not us,” Sgt. Gomez to KTSM/KTEP.
City Representative Alexsandra Annello tells us her constituents have brought up transparency issues in the past.
“Here, they are the District Attorney as reasoning for not being able to release documents, and the District Attorney saying that’s not true. That is clearly a problem that seems untruthful to me and unfair to the family and to the public,” Annello said.
On September 14, El Paso will have a new police chief, an opportunity for conversation around training and transparency within the police department to continue.
But one El Paso is grieving their loved one, wondering, ‘What if?’
“It’s a tragic event when anyone dies. And anybody whose loved one dies, that is something that goes without saying. There’s no amount of words that I can give that can bring back or comfort a family that’s grieving for their loved one, no matter the circumstances,” Sgt. Gomez said.
Diaz’s family decided not to sue the City of El Paso, but they say they are closely following who will be the next chief of the El Paso Police Department. Wednesday, all four final candidates will be present at a public meeting at the El Paso Museum of Art, with the community able to ask questions.
Three of the four final candidates for the next chief are either current or former officers within EPPD.