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State Police Chief Tim Johnson is acknowledging that his agency made mistakes and should have done more to prevent one of its own from being gunned down during a traffic stop last year in southern New Mexico.
Other State Police personnel have previously hinted at missteps leading to Officer Darian Jarrott’s death – but it’s never been stated plainly by someone as high-ranking as Johnson.
It’s been 21 months since Jarrott’s death, but the chief said an internal affairs investigation has yet to be launched in the case.
In an Aug. 8 deposition, Johnson told attorney Sam Bregman, who is representing Jarrott’s widow, that the 28-year-old might still be alive today had things been handled differently.
“I think some mistakes were made by everybody,” Johnson said, according to a transcript of the deposition. At one point he testified that Jarrott should have never come into contact with Omar Cueva, who was using meth, known to be carrying a rifle and had previously said he “wasn’t going back to jail.”
“The jury will hear the same words from the State Police chief in a couple of months, it will likely cost the state millions and it should because Darian Jarrott is a New Mexico hero who left behind four young children,” Bregman told the Journal on Friday.
A State Police spokesman said the agency “generally does not comment on pending litigation and will not be commenting on this case at this time.”
But Johnson did issue a statement Friday in which he notes that he and his department are still affected by the tragedy.
“The department and I are still very saddened by the loss of our brother,” he said. “We think about Officer Jarrott and his family daily.”
Bregman also has filed two federal lawsuits in Jarrott’s death, one against Johnson and Sgt. Mark Madrid, Jarrott’s supervisor at the time, and another against the federal government.
Drug sales investigated
The case started when HSI agents set their sights on capturing Cueva after he sold large amounts of fentanyl and meth to an undercover agent in Deming. Hoping to wall off their informant, HSI asked for State Police assistance in detaining Cueva as he made his way to a drug buy in Las Cruces on Feb. 4, 2021.
The lawsuit alleges Jarrott was unaware of Cueva’s dangerousness when he pulled over the 39-year-old convicted drug trafficker at the behest of Sgt. Madrid. Cueva, who was the subject of a be-on-the-lookout (BOLO) alert, fatally shot the officer along Interstate 10 and was subsequently killed in a shootout that left another officer injured in Las Cruces.
Johnson told Bregman that, since Jarrott’s death, he has not talked to anyone at HSI about “how to make sure this never happens again.” He also said there has been no Internal Affairs investigation opened in the matter, but he does plan on opening one.
Johnson noted that Madrid retired in August and, for that reason, doesn’t have to cooperate.
Before retirement, Madrid testified in a separate deposition that State Police told him he did nothing wrong and he was not disciplined in any way. Madrid said he believed the traffic stop should have been treated as “any other.”
Johnson strongly disagreed, saying it was a “high risk stop.”
He told Bregman in the deposition that Madrid should have also requested more information from HSI and asked more questions about Cueva. He said there is no State Police policy on how to treat a BOLO but said – of HSI’s operational plan on Cueva’s capture – “if I read that, my alarms would be up.”
That plan included a heavily-armed HSI tactical unit with a medic on standby and, separately, two State Police officers briefed on Cueva and parked along I-10, a few miles up from Jarrott, ready to pull him over.
Johnson testified that Jarrott and Madrid were not aware of the other two State Police officers’ involvement due to “communication.” Bregman asked whose responsibility it is for those in the agency to “communicate with each other appropriately.”
Johnson replied, “Everybody’s.”
State Police were invited to attend an HSI briefing on the plan to capture Cueva, but the officer didn’t attend. Johnson testified the officer should have been at the briefing.
He told Bregman there should have been better communication from HSI – and internally between State Police personnel – and “better decision-making on everybody’s part.”
When Bregman asked if Madrid’s behavior in the incident as a State Police supervisor was acceptable, Johnson replied “no.” He testified that Madrid “should have asked more questions … and it should have been handled differently.”
Johnson testified he never would’ve sent Jarrott, who started as a motor transportation officer and didn’t receive standard police training, out to stop Cueva alone. He told Bregman, “We should try to have a better plan than that.”
Johnson testified that he thought Jarrott handled the traffic stop well at first but was “running out of tools” as Cueva stalled getting out of the truck.
Lapel video showed Jarrott remained nonchalant and never drew his weapon, even after spotting the rifle Cueva would shoot him with moments later. Jarrott asked Cueva for the rifle but allowed him to get out of the truck holding it.
“Looking back it should have been a felony stop,” Johnson testified, describing that as pulling Cueva from the vehicle with commands from cover and “likely with a weapon drawn.”
Bregman asked, “If those things had been done Officer Jarrott may be alive today, right?” Johnson replied, “I wish he was” but then answered “yes.”