MESA, AZ — The City of Mesa is facing two civil rights lawsuits in cases where witnesses said officers used force against suspects who had their hands up.
On September 25, 2020, police followed Angel Benitez, who had fled officers in an alleged stolen car, to an apartment complex. Mesa's Street Crimes Unit officers surrounded his car in a Tempe apartment. Witnesses saw Benitez's hands up.
Police claimed Benitez reached toward his waistband before multiple officers opened fire. Benitez did not have a weapon and he died.
"[Once] they have their hands up, surrendering to law enforcement officers, they're no longer a threat, and that means they shouldn't be shot or killed," said Benjamin Taylor, an attorney for Benitez's family.
A Mesa Police Review Board noted one policy violation occurred that incident, but it ruled the shooting "justified." Benitez's family disagrees, and they filed a civil rights lawsuit last week for wrongful death and excessive force.
"His mom cries almost every day the loss of her young son," Taylor said.
Taylor also represents Lorenzo Jones in an excessive force lawsuit against Mesa. In July 2020, a witness video of Jones went viral on social media. The video showed Mesa's SWAT team shooting bean bag rounds at the man, who had his hands up and was just feet away from his young children.
Bean bag rounds are considered by law enforcement as a less-lethal use of force. Jones was injured, but not killed.
"He was no longer a threat around his kids and excessive force should have turned into de-escalation at the time," Taylor said.
The officers justified the bean-bagging by saying Jones already had a warrant for failing to show up in court for a violent felony charge, he was gesturing and arguing, and officers thought he could have a gun. Jones didn't have a gun, and he tried to explain the felony warrant was a court mistake.
In the Benitez and Jones cases, the ABC15 Investigators noticed officers with Mesa's SWAT team and Street Crimes Unit did not wear body cameras. Cameras can improve accountability and transparency, especially during critical incidents.
When ABC15 repeatedly asked about the lack of cameras in 2020, a department spokesman replied in an email, “Historically, most specialty units work in a plainclothes capacity that operate covertly, which limits the use of body-worn cameras." The spokesman added Mesa police was exploring "various options.”
Now, a full year later, the SWAT officers were still not wearing body cameras during the shooting of bank robbery suspect Stephen Franco.
A police spokeswoman now tells ABC15 all members of SWAT and the Street Crimes Unit will be equipped by December 31.