By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The family of a man shot and killed by police in New Mexico after they responded to the wrong address is suing the city and three officers.
The lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court alleges Robert Dotson and his family were deprived of their civil rights when the officers in the northwestern New Mexico city of Farmington mistakenly showed up at their home the night of April 5. The officers responded to the wrong address after getting a domestic violence call from a home across the street.
The lawsuit contends the officers acted unreasonably that night and created a risk for Dotson and his family. The 52-year-old and his wife were upstairs when they heard what they believed was a knock. Dotson put his robe on, went downstairs and grabbed his handgun from the top of the refrigerator, given the hour and not knowing what he would find, the lawsuit states.
Neither Dotson nor his wife looked at footage from their front door Ring camera before he went down, according to Tom Clark, one of the family’s attorneys.
Video from the camera system at the front door showed the officers backing away, their flashlights trained on the door as Dotson opened it. Gunfire erupted, with the officers shooting Dotson 12 times.
“Their extreme, unreasonable actions demonstrate an utter and reckless disregard and conscious indifference for the rights of plaintiffs and the life of Robert Dotson,” the complaint states.
At the time, the police chief called the shooting tragic and vowed his agency would cooperate with New Mexico State Police investigators. That investigation is complete and is being reviewed by the state attorney general’s office.
Luis Robles, an attorney who represents the officers, reiterated the chief’s sentiments in an interview with The Associated Press.
“They all wish it didn’t happen, and yet it did. And that’s what’s tragic about it. It didn’t have to happen,” he said.
Robles explained that the lead officer was using the computer-aided dispatch terminal in his patrol vehicle to find the home, and the mapping system placed the pin on the Dotsons’ home rather than the residence where the call originated.
Body camera footage released by Farmington police following the shooting showed that officers walked past the address that was illuminated by an exterior light at the home as they approached the door. The officers knocked and announced themselves.
While knocking twice more, the officers can be heard asking a dispatcher to confirm the address and to tell the caller to come to the door. The dispatcher states the address of a home across the street and the officers begin to realize they were in the wrong place.
The video released by police showed a chaotic scene erupting about four minutes after officers first arrived.
According to the lawsuit, Dotson was blinded by the officers’ flashlights when he opened the door.
The lawsuit states that Dotson’s wife, wearing only a robe, came downstairs after hearing the shots and found her husband lying in the doorway. She fired outside, not knowing who was out there. Police fired back, each of their 19 rounds missing the woman.
Once the gunfire stopped, sirens could be heard blaring as more officers arrived. Dotson’s wife could be heard pleading for help, saying someone had shot her husband.
Lawyers for the Dotson family said in the complaint that Farmington police handcuffed the woman and her two teenage children and took them to the station for questioning rather than acknowledging their error. They contend that the officers involved did not initially disclose that they were at the wrong address.
While Robles acknowledged the officers’ mistake, he disagreed that their reliance on technology amounted to reckless disregard.
“I think that’s fundamentally the misconception about the tragedy,” he said. “It is tragic that the officers showed up at the wrong house. It’s equally tragic that Mr. Dotson believed that he could point a gun at someone because they were knocking at his door at night.”
The blame is squarely on the officers who decided to open fire before even advising Dotson they were law enforcement, according to Clark.
“We believe that any dispute about the legality of the officers will be answered in our favor by a jury when the time comes,” Clark told The Associated Press on Friday.
Lawyers for the family have questioned training and oversight within the Farmington Police Department when it comes to the use of force. The complaint suggests damages should be awarded so that other cities and police departments are deterred from such conduct.