Protesters were out in force in Las Cruces on Saturday. Police closed portions of Lohman and Telshor, as scores of people walked through what is normally one of the busiest intersections in the city. The approximately three-hour protest disrupted traffic, but no injuries or arrests were reported.
The protest comes one day after Las Cruces Police announced an officer had been relieved of his duties. The Las Cruces Police Department last week received the autopsy report from the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator regarding the death of Antonio Valenzuela who passed away Feb. 29, 2020, following his arrest by officer Christopher Smelser.
After reviewing the autopsy report, LCPD Chief Patrick Gallagher has determined it is in the best interest of the department and the community to relieve officer Smelser of his duties as a result of his involvement in this incident. A letter of intent to terminate employment with the City of Las Cruces was delivered to officer Smelser on Friday, June 5. Smelser, an officer with LCPD since March 2016, has been on administrative leave since Feb. 29 pending the outcome of the autopsy report.
“Words are insufficient to bring comfort to Antonio Valenzuela’s family, but I extend my sincere condolences for their loss,” said Las Cruces police Chief Patrick Gallagher. “It is a tragic day for everyone involved when there is an in-custody death or a death as a result of a police apprehension. Once we learned of the findings in the Medical Investigator’s report, we felt in necessary to immediate initiate termination proceedings.”
Immediately after the death of Valenzuela, which involved the use of a vascular neck restraint by officer Smelser, the Las Cruces Police Department prohibited the use of that tactic in apprehensions.
At the request of the Las Cruces Police Department, New Mexico State Police have been the primary investigative agency for this incident. The Las Cruces Police Department will continue to cooperate with the investigation and with any prosecutorial efforts by the Third Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Because of pending litigation, the Las Cruces Police Department cannot comment further on this incident.
The Las Cruces city council will hold a work session on June 15 regarding the "8 Can't Wait" initiative. Police departments nationwide are considering the recommendations, which include a ban on chokeholds or strangleholds, the action involved in the deaths of Antonio Valenzuela in Las Cruces and George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Information from city of Las Cruces