Officer resigns amid accusations of excessive force on 11-year-old student | KOB 4
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Officer resigns amid accusations of excessive force on 11-year-old student

Nathan O'Neal
October 21, 2019 07:06 PM

FARMINGTON, N.M. - A veteran Farmington police officer is out of a job following accusations he used excessive force on a middle school student with special needs.

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Lapel video from the Aug. 27 incident shows Officer Zachary Christensen roughing up an 11-year-old girl at Mesa View Middle School.

It’s an incident that sent shockwaves through the Farmington police force.

“That’s not our standards. That’s not who we are,” said Farmington Police Chief Steven Hebbe.

The attorney general told KOB 4 Monday that he is looking into the incident.

“Students should always feel safe in schools. I have called for an expedited investigation and will work directly with all proper authorities involved in this regrettable tragedy," Balderas said in a statement.

THE INCIDENT

Officer Christensen spent the past four years assigned to Mesa View as a school resource officer.

The incident in question involved a sixth grade student who was in trouble for behavioral issues. KOB 4 is not identifying the girl because she is a minor.

The day of the incident, school administrators can be seen on the lapel video following the girl around campus as she waits for her mom to pick her up from school.

“This morning, she went straight to the cafeteria. She took more milks that she was supposed to. She threw a milk on the ground,” said Officer Christensen in the lapel camera footage obtained by the KOB 4 Investigates team.

According to Officer Christensen’s field report, the child assaulted two school employees that morning. The officer claims one assault occurred when the girl walked past the assistant principal and brushes past him and the second occurred when the girl attempted to open the door and walked past the principal. Ultimately, the charges against the girl did not stick.

Following the perceived offenses, Officer Christensen loses his patience, grabs the girls backpack and throws her to the ground. The struggle lasts for roughly six minutes.

            Officer: Put your arms behind your back!
            Student: Ow! You're hurting my arm! Get off of me!
            Officer: Turn over! Turn over! Do not resist. Do not resist!
            Officer: Stop resisting!
            Student: Ow! You're hurting me!
            Administrator: (redacted) stop resisting...
            Officer: Put your arms behind your back!
            Student: Okay, let me stand up!
            School Administrator: Zach, let's let her stand up.

At one point, a school administrator repeatedly tells the officer to allow the girl to get up.

“Officer Christensen – she is not a threat to yourself or others at this moment,” said the school employee to which the officer replied: “No, she is!”

In the field report filed by Officer Christensen, he writes: “She was very strong, stronger than I was.”

Several minutes into the confrontation, a school employee tells the officer his actions have gone too far.

“We’re not going to use excessive force,” the school employee told the officer to which Officer Christensen replies: “It’s not excessive!”

SEEKING ACCOUNTABILITY

Attorney Mark Curnutt, who is representing the girl and her mother, insists the lapel camera footage refutes the officer’s claims that the girl committed any crimes.

“She’s an 11-year-old girl and it’s a shock to the system to see that this is a thing that can occur at a school by a certified peace officer,” Curnutt said. 

Curnutt has initiated legal action against both the City of Farmington and the school.

“When you have a situation where there's a report that says a felony is committed, another felony is committed, another felony is committed -- and then you review the factual documentation you have of that through the video and it doesn't add up, there must be a level of accountability,” Curnutt said.

Farmington Municipal Schools spokesperson Renee Lucero said the school district “extends its apologies to the student and family involved in this unfortunate incident.”

“FMS administration is reviewing this incident with the intent of putting into place procedures and practices to prevent another instance like this,” said Lucero in a prepared statement. “The safety of all students entrusted to our care is among our highest priorities.”

School officials declined to speak publicly about the details of the incident, citing student privacy laws.

INTERNAL INVESTIGATION TRIGGERED

Farmington Police Chief Steven Hebbe told the 4 Investigates team an internal use-of-force investigation was immediately launched following the incident.

Officer Christensen was placed on administrative leave the very next day.

“There’s no doubt about it. As a chief you know darn well that this is a failure for us and you know it starts with the chief and you try and open the doors and talk about it,” said Chief Hebbe, adding later: “We did talk to the family as this rolled along and walked them through the family.”

“You’re trying to figure out where we could have done a better job and what things I need to do as far as training and policies to do a better job in the future,” Chief Hebbe said.

Authorities told the 4 Investigates team that Officer Christensen was up to date on his use-of-force training.

“It’s such a mess because we didn’t’ follow the things that we know we should have been following. You know we’ve been training on this, we talk about de-escalating, we talk about slowing things down and that didn’t happen here,” said Chief Hebbe.

As a result of the department’s internal review, Officer Christensen was slapped with two violations for “violating use of force policy” and for “unsatisfactory performance.”

Chief Hebbe said the department moved quickly to discipline the officer. However, Officer Christensen resigned from the department effective Oct.1.

When the 4 Investigates team contacted Christensen directly via phone, he declined to comment. Christensen has not been criminally charged. However, the case has been referred to the San Juan County District Attorney’s Office to consider possible charges.

The supervisor who oversees the school resource officers has been reassigned.

Credits

Nathan O'Neal

Copyright 2019 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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