A former New Mexico police officer was charged with second-degree murder on Thursday after authorities said he killed a Latino prisoner he had strangled.
Attorney General Hector Balderas said he filed charges against former Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser for the death of Antonio Valenzuela.
Police say Smelser used the chokehold after a car chase in February when Valenzuela fled during a traffic incident.
After the chase, Smelser can be heard on a police video that says, "I will (explicitly) suffocate you, brother."
Valenzuela was pronounced dead at the scene. The coroner found that he died of suffocating injuries.
The white Smelser was initially charged with manslaughter and later released.
In a statement, Balderas said he would take over the prosecution of Smelser from the Third Court law firm in Las Cruces and "focus on reasonable charges for violent and dangerous chokeholds."
Smelser's lawyer, Amy L. Orlando, described the new charges as sad and suggested that it was a political move that should make headlines.
“Officer Smelser used a technique that was approved by the department. He was trained in technology. And suddenly it's forbidden and he's a criminal, ”Orlando told The Associated Press.
The revised charge came when protests against Black Lives Matter hit the nation after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Demonstrators have put pressure on the police to change policies that involve the use of violence and interaction with black, Latino, and Native American residents.
Valenzuela's death triggered similar protests in Las Cruces, just 46 miles north of the Mexican border. Family members of Valenzuela had asked for an increased charge against Smelser.
Some protesters said the murder illustrated the violence of some Mexican Americans by the police and compared them to Floyd's murder.
Last month, Balderas called for the uniform application of violence guidelines set out in state law to include, among other things, body cameras and the ban on chokeholds.
In 2016, as chair of the State Law Enforcement Academy board, Balderas asked an expert panel to review how each of New Mexico's law enforcement agencies investigates the use of lethal violence by their own officials.
At the time, the Santa Mex New Mexican reported that the move appeared to offer the prospect of setting a nationwide standard for police handling of shootings.
A report with recommendations was written in 2017, but could not be implemented because many police authorities said a year later that they had not even received the policy recommendations.
Associated Press journalist Russell Contreras is a member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras