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New Mexico cop charged with involuntary manslaughter after man in custody dies in neck restraint

A police officer from Las Cruces, New Mexico, is being charged with involuntary manslaughter for the death of a man who he had restrained in February and placed in a neck restraint. 

The man, Antonio Valenzuela, was pulled over on February 29 during a traffic stop, left the vehicle, and started running from officers, according to CBS El Paso affiliate KDBC-TV. Valenzuela had a bench warrant for his arrest from New Mexico Probation and Parole. 

According to KDBC-TV, police said two officers tased him to no effect. A search warrant affidavit obtained by KDBC-TV said that Valenzuela was told multiple times to stop resisting the arrest, and that he had reached for a knife in his pocket. 

Officer Christopher Smelser placed Valenzuela in a "vascular neck restraint" to subdue him, KDBC-TV reported. Valenzuela then became unresponsive, and was declared dead on the scene, police said.

Smelser was on administrative leave since the day of the incident, and the Las Cruces Police Department immediately prohibited the use of the vascular neck restraints. Las Cruces Police Department Chief Patrick Gallagher fired Smelser on Friday, a day after receiving the autopsy report from the incident, KDBC-TV reports. 

The Las Cruces Police Department posted a news release from the Third Judicial District Attorney's Office, which explains the incident was investigated by the Doña Ana County Officer Involved Incident Task Force.

"Valenzuela was continually struggling to get away, once on the ground, during this struggle, Officer Smelser applied a vascular neck restraint technique to gain control. It is police policy that after any use of force, fire and ambulance are called upon to provide medical care, if necessary," the post says. "Mr. Valenzuela was observed as non-responsive, EMS technicians attempted life-saving measures which were not successful."

They also announced the decision to fire Smelser on Facebook. 

"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," the post said.

Gallagher further commented that "words are insufficient to bring comfort to Antonio Valenzuela's family." 

"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," he said. "Once we learned of the findings in the Medical Investigator's report, we felt in necessary to immediate initiate termination proceedings."

The post added that no further comment could be provided because of pending litigation. 

Officer in Feb. 29 Death Relieved of Duties On Thursday, June 4, the Las Cruces Police Department received the autopsy...

Posted by Las Cruces Police Department on Friday, June 5, 2020

The use of chokeholds and neck restraints have long been controversial, and brought to the forefront in the wake of George Floyd's death. Floyd died on May 25 after an officer kneeled on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Police had detained Floyd out of belief that he had attempted to use a counterfeit $20 bill to make a purchase. 

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