New Mexico cop fired and arrested after killing man with neck restraint

Following the death of Valenzuela, the Las Cruces Police Department immediately prohibited the use of neck restraints in apprehensions.


After using a neck restraint that resulted in a man’s death, a New Mexico police officer was recently fired and charged with involuntary manslaughter after the autopsy report recently determined the cop had choked the man to death.

Shortly after 2:30 a.m. on February 29, a Las Cruces police officer pulled over a GMC pickup truck with three occupants. According to the Las Cruces Police Department, police identified Antonio Valenzuela of Las Cruces had an open warrant for a parole violation. As Valenzuela fled on foot, police chased him and deployed their Taser twice without affecting Valenzuela.

According to police reports, Valenzuela was allegedly reaching for a knife in his pocket when Officer Christopher Smelser used a vascular neck restraint to subdue him. The medical examiner determined that Valenzuela died from asphyxial injuries caused by Officer Smelser’s neck restraint. Valenzuela’s neck had a deep muscle hemorrhage, his Adam’s apple was crushed, his ribs were fractured, and the medical examiner also found swelling in his brain.

Correctly applied, a carotid restraint can render a person unconscious within seconds by restricting the flow of blood to the brain. Incorrectly applied, a carotid restraint can easily become a chokehold in which one’s forearm is used to crush a person’s trachea or sometimes the Adam’s apple.

Due to the chokehold, Valenzuela became unresponsive. EMS technicians arrived later but were unsuccessful in their attempts to resuscitate him.

On Thursday, Las Cruces Police Department Chief Patrick Gallagher received the autopsy report for Valenzuela. According to the Office of the Medical Examiner, Valenzuela died from asphyxiation caused by Smelser’s neck restraint.

On Friday, Chief Gallagher announced that a termination letter had been sent to Smelser, who has been on administrative leave since the incident. Shortly afterward, Doña Ana County District Attorney Mark D’Antonio announced that Smelser has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, a fourth degree felony.

“Words are insufficient to bring comfort to Antonio Valenzuela’s family, but I extend my sincere condolences for their loss,” Chief Gallagher said in a statement on Friday. “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.”

Following the death of Valenzuela, the Las Cruces Police Department immediately prohibited the use of neck restraints in apprehensions.


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