Albuquerque holds police department accountable after many fatal incidents

The Albuquerque Police Department has come under national scrutiny for shootings involving officers, including 28 fatal incidents in the last five years. In March, two policemen shot and killed a mentally ill homeless man, all captured on a body camera. Unlike other high-profile cases around the country, these officers were charged. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports from New Mexico.

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    From Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City, police killings where the officers were not charged have sparked some intense debate and protests across the country.

    In Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has one of the highest rates of shootings involving police in the country, it's a different story.

    Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery has that.

  • And a warning:

    Her report contains graphic footage.


    Fourteen-year police veteran Jim Jury knows he and the 935 officers on Albuquerque's force are getting national attention.

  • OFFICER JIM JURY, Albuquerque Police Department:

    It's shaken the department up.


    The intense scrutiny stems in part from charges filed against two officers last month.

  • KARI BRANDENBURG, District Attorney, New Mexico:

    We did file an open — what we refer to as an open count of murder.


    District attorney Kari Brandenburg took a tough stand after two policemen shot and killed a mentally ill homeless man last March. She charged officer Dominique Perez and detective Keith Sandy with murdering 38-year-old James Boyd.

    He was illegally camping here in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains overlooking the city of Albuquerque. The police were called. A four-hour standoff followed, and the scene was recorded by a camera worn by one of the officers.

  • MAN:

    Don't change up your agreement. I'm going to try to walk with you.


    Boyd is heard agreeing to walk down the mountain with police. Less than 30 seconds later, the officers fired a flash grenade in an attempt to stun him.

  • MAN:

    Do it.


    He put down his backpack and took two small knives from his pockets. Officers fired six live rounds, hitting him three times. He died the next day at a hospital.

    Protests erupted after the Boyd shooting. Hundreds confronted police in riot gear, who used tear gas and made multiple arrests. The Boyd killing was one of five involving Albuquerque police in a two-month stretch in 2014.

    By all accounts, the video taken by officer Perez is critical. It's the first time such evidence will be used in a murder case against police in New Mexico and one of about a half-a-dozen cases nationally. But there's little agreement on what the video shows.

    Attorney Sam Bregman represents Keith Sandy.

  • SAM BREGMAN, Attorney:

    In this particular instance, we have a mentally unstable man with two knives eight feet away, higher ground, who takes an aggressive step towards that dog handler, that fellow police officer. At that time, not only did Keith have the right, but he had the duty to protect that officer and take that shot.

  • SHANNON KENNEDY, Attorney:

    That's simply not true.


    Attorney Shannon Kennedy represents the Boyd family in a separate civil lawsuit.


    If you look at the video, you see James Matthew Boyd looking around, disoriented, delusional. And he's not threatening anyone. He's not even looking at the dog handler. And he turns away, putting down his backpack. And that is when he is shot in the back.


    This city of about a half-a-million people has had a long string of shootings involving officers, 28 fatal incidents in the last five years. Per capita, that's eight times the rate in New York City.

    In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a massive civil rights investigation of police tactics here. Its findings, a 46-page report released last year, blasted the department, saying it engages in a pattern of excessive force, including deadly force, often against those with mental illness and in crisis.

    At the time, acting assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels gave a laundry list of problems found.

  • JOCELYN SAMUELS, Acting Assistant Attorney General:

    Inadequate oversight, inadequate investigations of incidents of force, inadequate structures for reporting force, inadequate training of officers to ensure that they understand what is permissible and what is not.

  • MAN:

    Basically, we have the camera here that stores footage.


    The Justice Department report noted that Albuquerque is one of a few cities its size to mandate that police wear body cameras, but, it added, those cameras often failed to record critical encounters.

    In fact, there's no video from Keith Sandy the day Boyd was shot. After the report was issued, city officials knew a major overhaul was in order.

  • Police Chief Gorden Eden:

  • GORDEN EDEN, Chief, Albuquerque Police Department:

    Within the department there were systematic failures. We have good people that — and the system has failed them.


    We talked to Mayor Richard Berry at the city's botanical gardens.

  • MAYOR RICHARD BERRY, Albuquerque, New Mexico:

    A lot of very difficult things in the finding letter. We chose to take the finding letter as a pivot point.

    We basically said, listen, we're going to reserve our right as a city to disagree with that report if we need to, but for now let's turn right into this process of creating a settlement agreement that we think works.


    After the city negotiated that agreement, community groups banded together and said they would hold authorities accountable — among the changes, beefing up the number of officers given crisis intervention training, known as CIT.

    It's aimed at preparing police to handle mentally ill, homeless or impaired suspects. Jim Jury took those classes recently. As we rode along with him, he took a call involving an attempted suicide and told us later his training helped.


    You can go into these, and it's not so much as about talking to someone. It could be about, OK, well, what is this person capable of doing and then how — how can I talk them down or how can I help them with what they are going through?


    We went from 27 percent of our officers being certified in CIT, to now over 75 percent, and we should hit a number near 100 percent before the spring.


    Other reforms in the works include new ways to evaluate officers and to investigate the use of force. All the reforms, as well as settlements with families of victims of police shootings, have taken a financial toll on the city.

    The Albuquerque Journal estimated the tab at $23 million for past settlements, plus another $5 million for the reforms. And there's a toll on those on the front lines.


    I hear many of them are concerned. I hear many of them are doubting whether or not they want to be a police officer much longer.


    From a morale standpoint, you will talk to officers that feel like they're pretty beat up. When the officers feel like they're not given a fair shake, that drives morale down. When people in the community, whether it's Albuquerque or anywhere else in the country, feel like they're not being listened to, that's — that's a morale problem in the community.


    It will months at least before the Boyd case goes to trial. Unlike Ferguson, prosecutors chose not to proceed with a grand jury, opting first for a mini-trial before a judge.


    We choose to go by way of preliminary hearing, because we feel it's more transparent, and everybody's got the information, and they're not asking questions, well, why did this happen, was that presented, why didn't you present this? It's all out in the open.

    The judge has broad discretion, first-degree, second-degree, voluntary manslaughter. She could also do involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault.


    There could be no charges?


    There could be no charges. She could say, I don't find that there's probable cause.


    Attorney Bregman doesn't want the hearing to take place at all. He's moved to disqualify Brandenburg, saying her prosecutor interviewed witnesses on the mountain when Boyd was shot.


    We have the very same district attorney's office, including the lead prosecutor in this case, at the time of this shooting, goes up to the mountain, interviews people, gives legal advice at the time, now comes back down months later, charges these same officers with murder. It's an inherent conflict of interests.


    Brandenburg said her department is supposed to go to the scene of a crime.

    And for attorney Kennedy, it all looks like pushback from the police.


    They truly believe that they should be able to operate above the law, and when you have a district attorney that's going to hold their feet to the fire and say no one is above the law and no one is below the law, they retaliate. They're bullies.


    Change won't happen overnight. It will take four years or more to fully implement the Justice Department agreement. The mayor sees the city's current plight as an opportunity.


    Albuquerque, though some of the difficulties we have had, I think will come out of this as a real thought leader, and as someone that can really show the way.


    But in the meantime, there have already been three new shootings involving officers this year, including one that was fatal.

    I'm Kathleen McCleery for the PBS NewsHour in Albuquerque.

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