New police chief says his lawsuit tells true story of Los Alamos firing
BLOOMFIELD — What exactly occurred on Dec. 21, 2012, at the Los Alamos Police Department that led to Randy Foster's firing is a matter of dispute.
This week, Foster was named the new Bloomfield Police Chief. He was one of 26 who applied for the position after former chief Mike Kovacs announced his retirement in May.
On that day in 2012, Cpl. Brian Schamber was committed against his will to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas. He was sedated and medicated at the facility and eventually released 10 days later after a psychologist determined that Schamber was not psychotic.
Schamber sued the police department and the County Council of Unincorporated Los Alamos in 2013, claiming that he was retaliated against by then commanders Foster and Scott Mills. Schamber admits in his lawsuit that he was receiving treatment at the time for bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but denied he was a threat to himself or the community.
The county settled the lawsuit in December for $600,000 and Foster was fired from the police department.
Foster told The Daily Times that his own lawsuit, filed in January in Los Alamos District Court, provides an accurate account of what happened in December 2012 and in the years that preceded Schamber's involuntary commitment.
The Daily Times examined the lawsuits, which tell the following story.
Foster, Mills and Schamber's partner, Paige Early, allege that they were made scapegoats by county and department officials who ignored warnings about Schamber's alleged mental instability for years.
According to the lawsuit, Early and Schamber were assigned as investigative partners in April 2011. Early said that Schamber's mental state began to deteriorate during the summer of 2011, and manifested itself in erratic driving and incidents of road rage.
Early said she brought her concerns about Schamber's behavior to then Police Chief Wayne Torpy who took no actions and told her not to contact the human resources department. She said he continued to ignore her warnings because of her gender.
Schamber said in his lawsuit that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, known as OCD, in June 2012. He claims his symptoms made him a better officer — he could focus better, work long hours and "study with great intensity for long periods of time."
He said his exceptional performance with the department made his supervising officers, including Foster and Mills, jealous, and that they conspired to derail his career.
Early said that Schamber made disturbing comments before and after he was diagnosed, at various times threatening to shoot civilians, ram his patrol car into a family's vehicle and run over a pedestrian.
Early said that Schamber only turned over his gun and sought treatment after admitting that he wanted to kill himself. He was placed on paid administrative leave for 90 days in June 2012, the lawsuit states, and returned to work in October 2012. He was treated with various medications, including lithium and Prozac, according to both lawsuits, but his physician was still trying to find the best combination to treat his disorders at the time of the commitment.
After Torpy suffered a stroke at his home in November 2012, Foster was named the acting police chief and Mills became the acting deputy chief. Both men said they were never informed why Schamber was placed on administrative leave.
On Dec. 21, 2012, Schamber stopped taking his medication, both lawsuits state. Paige alleges he told her while they were on-duty that it would be "cool to know how it feels to run over a pedestrian," the lawsuit states.
Early reported Schamber's history of disturbing behavior to Mills and Foster later that day, the lawsuit states. Foster contacted Dr. Gregory Baca, one of Schamber's two physicians. Baca would call Schamber's wife, the lawsuit states, and then call Foster back and tell him that Schamber needed to be hospitalized.
Mills and Foster confronted Schamber, who agreed to turn in his weapon and badge. He willingly went to Los Alamos Medical Center, Foster and Mills allege, with the understanding that he would voluntarily commit himself.
Schamber alleges in his lawsuit that his commander's true plan was to have him involuntarily committed and said Baca never spoke to him about his mental state.
The medical center determined that Schamber could not be committed, because he refused to do so voluntarily and he posed no risk of harm to himself or others. Mills and Foster told a nurse that Baca said Schamber needed to be hospitalized, voluntarily or not, the lawsuit alleges. Schamber alleges in his lawsuit that Baca lied about his condition.
Schamber was eventually transported to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute against his will, where he remained under observation for 10 days.
Foster said in the lawsuit that he was praised by County Administrator Harry Burgess at the time for his actions. He claimed Torpy later characterized Schamber as a "crazy (expletive)" who should have been fired a long time ago.
He said both men's attitudes changed after Schamber filed his lawsuit, which claimed millions of dollars in damages. The lawsuit alleges that Torpy aided Schamber's lawsuit by providing him internal investigative documents.
Attorneys for the county have filed a motion to strike "inflammatory language" found in the lawsuit filed by Foster, Mills and Early. That motion is still pending and the lawsuit remains unresolved.
Foster, Mills and Early are seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.