MESA, AZ — The family of Angel Benitez, an unarmed man killed by police in September 2020, has filed a $15 million legal claim against the City of Mesa.
The notice of claim, the precursor to a lawsuit, alleges Mesa police used excessive force, failed to render medical aid as Benitez was dying, and was negligent in hiring officers.
"Angel is a 21-year-old young man who was unarmed and shot 28 times by the Mesa Police Department and killed," said attorney Benjamin Taylor, who represents the family.
Mesa police first spotted Benitez in the parking lot of a Panda Express on September 25 in what they believed was a stolen car. He was asleep in the driver's seat, and one officer said aloud he did not see any weapons in the car.
Before officers tried to rouse Benitez, he woke up and drove away. The officers did not have his vehicle completely blocked in.
The notice of claim indicated the officers could have "peacefully resolved" the situation in that parking lot if they "had handled the situation appropriately."
Police cars and a helicopter followed Benitez. Officers say he failed to stop when they tried to pull him over, and they later located his vehicle backed into a parking space at a Tempe apartment complex. He was still behind the wheel.
Witnesses said he had his hands up and was complying with police orders to open his door.
Authorities, however, said Benitez dropped his hands out of their view, towards his waistband, and they perceived it as a threat and began firing at Benitez who was still in the car. Officers fired both lethal and non-lethal rounds at Benitez.
“For Mesa to say that he was a threat, that's what they do to justify their shootings,” Taylor said. “That's what they do once they kill somebody to try to cover it up.”
Only three of the officers on the scene were wearing body cameras, and none had a clear view of Benitez during the shooting.
According to the notice of claim, several of the officers involved in the fatal shooting have “histories of questionable police conduct.” One officer used his personal 9mm handgun, instead of a department-issued weapon, to fire nine rounds at Benitez, according to the family’s lawyer.
While the shooting occurred at 9:27 a.m., firefighters did not arrive to provide medical care until 18 minutes later, at 9:45, according to the claim. Benitez’s family alleged the officers failed to render medical aid as the young man was dying.
ABC15 reached out to the City of Mesa and the Mesa Police Department about the allegations in the legal claim. A police spokeswoman said the department does not comment about pending litigation. She referred ABC15 to statements the police made in the first days after the shooting.
Tempe police conducted a criminal investigation. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has not yet determined whether or not the officers will face criminal charges.