January 12, 2015

DA: Albuquerque Police Officers Charged with Murder in Shooting of Homeless Man

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[button icon=”tags”]Analysis & Opinion[/button]

“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity,”  Pope Francis, speaking on Jan. 12, 2015 in Sri Lanka

Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg has charged two Albuquerque police officers with murder for the shooting of a homeless camper in the city’s foothills in March of 2014.

Read the Criminal Charging Documents Here:

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Before officer-involved shootings in Ferguson or New York sparked local and national protests, Albuquerque residents were struggling with a string of officer-involved shootings in their own city. James Boyd was the 26th person shot by Albuquerque police since 2010. There have been 15 others since.
Read more about Albuquerque protests against APD use-of-force at the NM Compass.

But the Boyd shooting was unique in that it was captured on video by officer-worn body cameras and the video, made viral after being released by Albuquerque Police, caused many to question why Detective Keith Sandy and Officer Dominique Perez shot Boyd who had negotiated to surrender to police who had called out the city’s controversial tactical team, the Repeat Offender Project (ROP), to take over once Boyd refused to comply with an officer’s attempt to arrest him for illegal camping.

In the video, Boyd appears notably mentally challenged or disturbed but ultimately complies with officer directives to surrender. Moments later, an officer throws a flash-bang grenade at this feet and releases a police dog on him as he walks towards officers as directed.   When he backs away from the grenade, he retrieves a small pocketknife and is shot.
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Officer-worn video.  March 16, 2014.  Obtained from the Albuquerque Police Department by public records request. [/box]

A multi-agency task force, led by the agency whose officers are involved in the shooting, investigates police shootings in Albuquerque. This practice has led many to question the internal investigations.

Full disclosure: As a former lieutenant with the UNM police and later spokesman for the local district attorney’s office, I responded and participated in several shooting investigations and review teams led by APD.

After Albuquerque’s police chief ruled the Boyd shooting “justified” in the first hours following the incident, public outcry spilled over into city council and the streets. Peaceful marches resulted in hours-long stand offs with police who ultimately used tear gas to disperse crowds assembled along Central Avenue, the old Route 66.

The US Department of Justice had been looking into Albuquerque police shootings for almost two years when the Boyd shooting occurred.  Following the shooting of Mr. Boyd by Det. Sandy and Ofc. Perez, the DOJ announced it’s plan to demand across-the-board changes to APD use-of-force policies.  Those changes including disbanding the mini tactical unit where the two officers were assigned.

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg

For decades, police shootings in Albuquerque have been referred to the district attorney who has presented them to a citizen grand jury for review. No officer has ever been charged under this process, leading may to call for change.

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg began the practice of posting reports and exhibits presented to the grand juries on her website after each grand jury decision. The prosecutor in Ferguson, Missouri employed a similar practice following the grand jury’s decision there not to indict a Ferguson police officer in the shooting of Michael Brown.

Brandenburg has since announced that she would be open to public court hearings to review police shootings, if necessary.

“Moving forward by way of preliminary hearing has always been an option in these cases, and would provide the public the greatest transparency,” Brandenburg told reporters in December when news of the possible hearing became public.

The announcement expected today would be the first time police officers were charged in connection with an officer-involved shooting. The officers are expected to be charged with open counts of murder through a process known as a “criminal information” filing. In this case the prosecutor files charges on paper and triggers a public preliminary hearing which acts as a mini-trial where both the prosecutor and defense present evidence to a judge who decides if probable cause exists for a full trial.

Many are likely to see Brandenburg’s move as positive because it provides greater transparency of the process for the public.

Detective Keith Sandy retired from the Albuquerque Police Department following the shooting and public outcry. Officer Perez has been on administrative duty.

APD Accountability

Officer-worn video has resulted in other actions against Albuquerque police officers since wearing them became standard practice in late 2010. Though enforcement of the policy has been haphazard, videos that are captured have provided greater insight into the department.

In June 2014, the public advocacy group ProgressNow NM obtained an officer-worn video showing an Albuquerque police officer striking a university student in the groin during a traffic stop. The video also shows the officer seizing a cell phone from a witness and deleting a video of the encounter.

The student was not taken to the hospital by police and later lost a testicle as a result of the encounter.

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Officer-worn video. Albuquerque police. April 25. 2014.  Video obtained from Albuquerque Police via public records request. [/box]

Watch the full 13 minute video here.

The video, posted online by ProgressNowNM, sparked outrage and prompted an investigation into the officer’s actions. The police department ultimately suspended the officer, permitting him to return to work.

But public outcry continued and the state’s law enforcement certification board ultimately revoked the officer’s state certification in December, meaning he cannot serve as a police officer in New Mexico.

“This was the first time a community group like ours was able to use these videos to seek real change from this department,” says Alex Curtas of ProgressNowNM. “This type of public transparency has shown us many other times the heroic nature of most of our officers, but it also helps us identify and hold accountable the handful of officers who take their badge for granted.”

Brandenburg is scheduled to hold a press conference this afternoon at 2:00 PM MT.

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