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A countersuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico against Los Alamos County by two employees of the Los Alamos Police Department alleges possible abuses of power by two high ranking police officers within the LAPD.
The suit, filed Tuesday by Brian and Zina Schamber, contends that Lt. Scott Mills and Commander Randy Foster allegedly harassed Brian Schamber and tried to sabotage his law enforcement career in an attempt to eliminate him as a possible candidate to replace Police Chief Wayne Torpy, who was experiencing health issues at the time.
Court documents state that Foster has been terminated from his job and Mills is on suspension following an internal affairs investigation into the allegations. County administrator Harry Burgess confirmed Wednesday that Foster was no longer employed by the county and that Mills is on administrative leave.
Burgess said he could not comment on the case but he did say that James Sullivan of the Brennan and Sullivan law firm in Santa Fe would talk about the case on the county’s behalf.
Torpy said he did not want to comment on the case. Foster referred inquiries to his attorney George Geran and Mills did not return a message for comment.
Santa Fe attorney John Day, representing the Schambers, said, “...Torpy was a big fan of Brian Schamber and we alleged that’s one of the issues here that generated all this. “Foster decided ‘you know what? He’s in my way here, and there’s an easy way to take care of him.’”
Torpy, who has put the wheels in motion to retire this fall due to his health, has seen the lines of succession that he put in place the last few years crumble as events have unfolded in the months since he returned to duty earlier this year.
The ensuing leadership vacuum in the upper echelons of the LAPD is so critical that county officials have called upon Philmont Taylor, who heads the county’s Office of Emergency Management, to step in as acting chief.
The Schambers’ suit alleges a laundry list of violations of civil and constitutional rights as well as state tort law. The various counts include unreasonable seizure, search of person, deprivation of liberty without due process, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, false imprisonment, assault and battery, defamation, and negligent training and supervision.
Timeline of events
The timeline of events began in August 2012 when Schamber was diagnosed as being bipolar and also having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Schamber was prescribed mood stabilization and anxiety medication, which he stopped taking on or about Oct. 6, according to court documents.
Statements they said that were made in the reports about Schamber made the county believe he was dangerous to himself and others.
According to one incident, the county said, Schamber asked psychiatrist Gregory Baca “why it seemed like I was evil and always had thoughts of harming other people.”
The county also alleges that Schamber stopped taking his medication “on or about Oct. 6 2012, and that the psychiatrist had barred him from coming back to work. In another incident, the county said, Schamber who was on patrol, made a threatening statement about a man he saw unloading his car.
According to the county’s declaratory statement, “defendant, who was driving at the time, turned the steering wheel to the right toward the man and then left and said ‘right in the kneecaps that would be funny.’”
“He was saying some pretty strange things and the county thought it best he should get checked out,” Sullivan said. “The county thinks he is a good officer.”
The situation apparently came to a head a few days before Christmas 2012.
Then, on Dec. 21, 2012, the lawsuit says Foster learned of an appointment Schamber had with an LAPD psychologist about his ongoing treatment for his obsessive compulsive and bipolar disorders.
It further stated that while Schamber went out on patrol following the appointment, Foster began “laying the groundwork” with the psychologist, Baca, to get Schamber involuntarily committed to a mental facility, even though Baca initially did not communicate that anything was wrong with him. The suit alleges that Baca, who is also a defendant in the case, only sent communication to Foster that Schamber is not fit for duty and that someone should take his gun after Foster talked with Baca.
When Schamber arrived back at the police department sometime after 5 p.m., Foster allegedly asked Schamber to surrender his gun and ordered him to go to the Los Alamos Medical Center. Schamber allegedly did not object, not knowing, according to the suit, that “the true purpose of the trip to the Los Alamos Medical Center was to effect a plan concocted by defendant’s Foster, Mills and Baca to have Mr. Schamber involuntarily committed to a mental health institution.”
When the LAMC staff examined Schamber and found nothing wrong with him, Schamber’s lawyer alleged Foster and Mills told the staff Schamber expressed desires to kill Torpy.
“Our theory is that Foster and Mills realized they were losing the battle,” Day said. “So, they went to the medical staff and said, ‘you know what, Brian Schamber has been sitting outside Chief Torpy’s house in the bushes and he’s going to kill him.’ It was a false statement, completely made up, fabricated, but Foster and Mills knew they had to do this to inch this case over the line. And so, the medical staff said ‘oh that’s different, even though we haven’t seen anything that would indicate there was a problem.’”
The suit then goes on to say that after further consultation with the medical staff he thought he was free to leave based on a comment from a LAMC staff member. Upon learning this, Foster had the department search Los Alamos for Schamber. Early in the morning of Dec. 22 he was spotted by a patrol officer and “forcibly removed from his car, handcuffed, detained, placed in a patrol car and involuntarily taken back to the Los Alamos Medical Center,” according to the lawsuit.
Day alleged during the department’s hunt for Schamber, Foster and Mills instructed the force to use radio silence.
“That night, Foster and Mills told the department ‘we don’t want any radio traffic about this, we want you to use your private cell phones.’ ...So there will be no record of communication between the officers, Foster and Mills,” Day said.
Once Schamber was back in custody at the LAMC, he was allegedly “forcibly restrained against his will, sedated against his will, administered medications against his will and stripped of his clothes,” according to a statement in the suit.
Schamber was then transported to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M. The lawsuit goes on to say he was repeatedly and heavily sedated against his will for ten days before being released. During that time, the suit alleges Schamber’s house was repeatedly searched, and after he got out, Foster made threats to Schamber and his wife about being fired from their jobs, losing their home “and other negative events.” Foster also filed a complaint against Schamber with the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board “that was meant to result in Mr. Schamber’s law enforcement certification being revoked,” said a statement in the suit.
When Torpy arrived back at the department after his medical leave, the suit said he immediately “removed Foster and Mills from the chain of command” and launched an Internal Affairs investigation into their actions.
In February of this year, a separate and independent report prepared by psychologist Susan Cave cleared Schamber of all allegations against Schamber, going as far as to say Schamber was perfectly fit for duty during the time of his involuntary commitment to the mental health facility in Las Vegas.
“It appears that there were a lot of misstatements and reports to medical staff both in Los Alamos and NMBHI that later did not bear out to be correct. There is no evidence that (Mr. Schamber) was psychotic in December 2012 or since,” said Cave in a letter to Torpy.
But in the same appeal to give Schamber back his gun, the county said Schamber was never committed to a mental institution with the meaning of federal criteria, and was never deemed mentally ill or defective.
“The federal law for commitment does not apply to Mr. Schamber,” Sullivan said. “They admit Schamber had OCD and bipolar issues.”
In May, after Schamber’s attorney made a demand to the county for $25 million, the county filed a Motion for Declaratory Judgment in federal court to let Schamber have his gun back and allow him resume his regular duties as a police officer, citing psychologists Susan Cave’s report indicating that Schamber was fit for duty.
“Following his discharge from NMBHI, (the Las Vegas facility) the county asked the defendant to come back to work as a police officer, and defendant refused,” said a statement in the court documents.
The county is saying that it’s Day, Schamber’s lawyer, that’s preventing Schamber from coming back to work as a regular police officer in an effort to keep alive their lawsuit against the County of Los Alamos.
“Defendant’s lawyers claim that he cannot work as a police officer because he is prohibited from possessing a firearm pursuant to (federal law preventing individuals who have been involuntarily committed from possessing firearms) by reason of having been sent to NMBHI for evaluation. The County disagrees,” the statement read. “Defendant’s lawyers have made a demand to the County for $25 million because they claim that defendant is prohibited from possessing a firearm and that, as a result, he can no longer work as a police officer.”
The county is also claiming they only agreed with Foster, Mills and Baca because of what reports from the three individuals told them, prior to LAPD psychologist Dr. Susan Cave’s final evaluation of Schamber.
Day found the county’s defense quite ironic.
“... What the County of Los Alamos did was go to a federal judge and say ‘we want him to have a gun, even though we were the ones that tackled him, locked him up in handcuffs, shot him full of psychiatric drugs against his will and shipped him off to a psychiatric facility. We didn’t think he should have a gun in December, but now we’re desperate to put a gun in his hands and put him back on patrol in the streets of Los Alamos.’ It’s an ironic position for the county to take,” Day said.
The suit, meanwhile, alleges that as soon as Torpy went on sick leave late last year, Foster and Mills, as acting police chief and deputy chief respectively, began their attempt to force Schamber out of the department, stripping Schamber of his duties given to him by Torpy.
“Their conduct included changing Mr. Schamber’s patrol duties, taking from Mr. Schamber the additional duties and responsibilities that had previously been placed on him by the Chief of Police, and constantly offering unreasonable and unsupported criticism of Mr. Schamber’s performance.”
Schamber’s lawsuit with the county is asking for as-yet-to-be-determined, punitive monetary damages as well as recovery of front pay, earnings, benefits and career opportunities. He is also asking for a trial by jury.
Day remarked that Schamber’s career has been seriously damaged by the episode. “No department is going to want to hire him after it learns he was involuntarily committed by his own department,” he said.
John Severance and Keven Todd contributed to this report.