Lawsuit: Man Says Phoenix Cop Shot Him for No Reason

Mayor Kate Gallego, National Police Foundation president Jim Burch, and Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams.
Steven Hsieh
Mayor Kate Gallego, National Police Foundation president Jim Burch, and Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams.

In February 2018, Phoenix police officer James Byrd shot Lazaro Curiel multiple times. Police claimed the shooting was justified because Curiel had pointed a gun at them after they approached him while searching for somebody else.

Curiel went to the hospital, but the next day he was arrested and accused of aggravated assault and possession of a weapon by a prohibited possessor. He was later indicted by a grand jury and has a trial currently set for September 23, 2019.

Now, Curiel is suing Byrd and the city of Phoenix for excessive force and gross negligence, raising questions about the truthfulness of police during a year when police shootings in the agency had doubled. According to the complaint filed in Arizona U.S. District Court, he is seeking a jury trial and over $300,000 in damages. Neither the city and Byrd's attorney, John Masterson, nor Curiel's attorneys, Marc Antony and Jody Broaddus, responded to requests for comment.

Court documents state that Curiel was repairing a car outside of his neighbor's house on North 89th Avenue between Coronado Road and Palm Lane when several unmarked cars approached him at a high speed. It was just after 9 p.m. and the officers' headlights were on, making it difficult for Curiel to see who was inside.

Curiel claims that when the vehicles came to a stop, he turned away from the car he was repairing and Byrd began shooting him, without ever identifying himself as a police officer.

After being shot multiple times, he fell to the ground, unable to move due to his injuries. Then, he says, cops sicced a police dog on him.

"Phoenix's K-9 officer dragged Curiel into the middle of the street, where he was then stood up and laid on the hood of a marked police [S]uburban by Phoenix officers," the lawsuit states.

Curiel and his attorneys allege that he was wrongfully arrested and jailed; he's been behind bars for more than a year since the incident.

"The shooting of Lazaro Curiel was unlawful, unprovoked, unwarranted, unjustified, callous, depraved, vicious, and evil," his lawyers state.

Curiel contends that he did not engage in any illegal activity and that the officers had no probable cause to stop, detain, arrest, or use lethal force against him. He says he did not resist the officers or attempt to flee.

When the officers arrived that day, they were looking for Curiel's friend, Roberto Verdugo, who was later arrested on a domestic violence charge.

A press release from the Phoenix Police Department at the time stated that officers saw a vehicle that belonged to Verdugo and when officers approached, a man standing nearby pointed a handgun at them. So they shot him.

Five days later, police identified the man they shot as Lazaro Curiel. ABC Arizona and other news outlets reported that a police spokesperson said "Officers attempted to arrest Verdugo after watching him approach the car ... As officers walked toward him, a second suspect, 39-year-old Lazaro Curiel, was seen standing in the front of a house and allegedly pointed a gun at the officers."

In a probable cause statement submitted to Maricopa County Superior Court, Curiel said he didn't realize the men who pulled up on him were police because the officers were not in uniform. But police said in court documents that the officer was wearing a police vest with the words "police" and "City of Phoenix" written on it.

Police say Curiel is not allowed to own a gun due to prior convictions for drug possession and shoplifting.

Last year, Phoenix police shootings more than doubled, from 21 in 2017 to 44 in 2018. Twenty-three of the shootings were fatal. The Phoenix Police Department has since released an independent report examining the extraordinarily high number of officer-involved shootings, but the report found no definitive cause for the increase.

"Byrd's unlawful acts against Curiel violated the duties of care owed to Curiel and amounts to a complete disregard for human life," the lawsuit states. "As a direct and proximate result of the wrongful acts and omissions by Byrd, Curiel has suffered devastating injuries and emotional trauma."

Phoenix police did not immediately respond when asked whether Byrd had been investigated for the incident and whether Byrd is still currently on patrol.