A North Texas mother says the Garland Police Department failed to protect her from a rogue officer who pepper-sprayed her while she was handcuffed and buckled inside a police cruiser.
The incident is one of two back-to-back questionable use of force incidents involving the same officer and which led to his termination from GPD.
Xochitl Sanchez recently filed a federal lawsuit and agreed to speak out for the first time about the February 2021 encounter.
Sanchez says it’s a police encounter that has marked her for life.
“Every time I go in front of the mirror and see the scars from the pepper spray it makes me relive the trauma,” she said through tears.
By most accounts, it was a chaotic scene during the massive winter storm that hit North Texas.
Sanchez says she had been fighting with her teen daughters over their phone when one of the girls called 911.
Garland police officer Matthew Mitchell was among several officers who responded to the domestic disturbance.
Sanchez admits she does not trust police over past allegations of police brutality in the community.
Body camera video obtained by NBC 5 and authenticated by GPD shows officers confronting an upset Sanchez.
She objects when officers try to speak with her underaged children.
An officer tells the girls he’s been to the house before and asks them if they have any family who they can stay with.
They begin to detail the argument with their mother and begin to cry.
Meanwhile, Sanchez is heard yelling at other officers saying they do not have the right to talk to the minors or be in the house.
The woman is then handcuffed and begins to be escorted out of the house.
Sanchez claims the officers used excessive force, pushing her forward with such force it caused her pants to fall under her waist.
But it is what happened next that led to Mitchell’s firing and criminal charges brought against him.
Body camera video shows that as a male officer leans over Sanchez to buckle her seatbelt, Sanchez appears to sneeze in his direction.
‘Did she spit on you?’ an officer identified as Mitchell is heard asking.
The officer responds ‘Yeah’ closes the door and proceeds to walk to the back of the squad car to evaluate his arms.
Several seconds later, Officer Mitchell opens the door and without a word, pepper sprays Sanchez.
“I’m handcuffed, I’m seat belted in, my pants are down my waist, pepper-sprayed me point-blank,” said Sanchez. “It felt like forever and I was crying and like, ‘What are you doing?’ And then he shut the door.”
Police records provided to NBC 5 by GPD show Mitchell initially omitted that he opened the door to spray Sanchez in the face.
He told internal affairs that he sprayed Sanchez as he was trying to lawfully arrest her when Sanchez was already cuffed and secured, the investigation found.
There was also plexiglass separating other officers from being spat on.
Officers are also trained to use ‘spit guards’ for suspects who might begin spitting on officers.
Turns out, this was the second back-to-back use of force incident involving Mitchell.
The night before, Mitchell is accused of kneeing on a man who was on the ground and handcuffed following a foot chase.
Police stopped a car suspected of being stolen.
The suspect began running away from police while handcuffed and was brought down by another officer.
Mitchell is accused of colliding with the man’s head and face with his knee.
In May 2021, Mitchell received two ‘indefinite suspensions’ from GPD for his actions in the two incidents.
Mitchell’s actions came into question because he did not report his ‘use of force’ in the incident.
He was also accused of misrepresenting details in the police report.
GPD’s spokesman tells NBC 5, Officer Mitchell was hired by the Garland Police Department as a lateral officer from Paris PD in October 2021 and worked for Garland PD for 18 months until his indefinite suspension.
Officer Mitchell was placed on restrictive duty after being involved in two use-of-force incidents on back-to-back nights, although no citizen complaints had been filed. The Garland Professional Standards Unit launched an internal investigation and determined that, while both arrests were lawful, Officer Mitchell’s conduct was in violation of Departmental Policy. Chief Bryan issued a termination order for Officer Mitchell. Officer Mitchell initially appealed the Chief’s decision but later withdrew his appeal and elected to resign before the termination appeal was complete.
Sanchez and her attorney Mark Robinius of Robinius, Espinosa & Wietzel, LLP, filed a federal lawsuit in October against the city of Garland and former officer Mitchell, claiming he violated Sanchez’s constitutional rights.
They are seeking $10 million dollars.
“It’s purely criminal,” said Robinius of what the video proves. “It’s a violation of her constitutional rights and it’s very egregious.”
Robinius stresses the focus should not be on whether the suspect spat on or simply sneezed on the officer.
“She was incapacitated, handcuffed, seat belted in a squad car,” he said. “An officer re-engaged her by opening the door and spraying her significantly in the face with pepper spray.”
Sanchez says making matters worse was that no officer or jail employee helped her wash the spray off her face.
She had to wash it off once she posted bond and headed home.
“My daughter came to hug me, and it was still on me at 7 o’clock at night,” she said. “The police department failed me because they did not protect me while I was in their custody.”
Mitchell is out on bond, charged with two misdemeanors for assault and official oppression.
NBC 5 reached out to his attorney but has not heard back.
When asked what they respond to those who would defend the officer’s actions given the chaotic situations officers are put in, Robinius responded, “Sure. Everyone should support law enforcement. This is not law enforcement. This is criminal conduct by a peace officer… For those that support the police, I would ask them to continue to examine each case on a case-by-case basis… Look at the video. The video speaks for itself.”