Two Albuquerque police officers were charged with murder on Monday for the shooting of a mentally ill homeless man captured on video. Accused of committing unjustified and unconstitutional police shootings by a Justice Department investigation, Albuquerque police officers often condone excessive use of force and escalate potentially hazardous situations. Since 2010, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) has been involved in over 40 shootings resulting in 27 deaths; many were people with mental illnesses.
Bypassing the state grand jury process, Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg filed documents on Monday in the Second Judicial Court containing a count of open murder against Albuquerque Police Officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez. Authorized by New Mexico state law, Brandenburg filed criminal information records allowing the prosecutor to present charges without an indictment from a grand jury.
“Unlike Ferguson, and unlike in New York City – some recent high profile cases – we’re going to know,” stated Brandenburg. “The public’s going to have that information, you’re all going to have seen the witnesses, heard the arguments, and you’ll understand, hopefully, perhaps why the judge made the decision he or she will make.”
On March 16, 2014, APD officers responded to a report of a homeless man, James Boyd, illegally camping in the Sandia foothills. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and armed with two small pocketknives, Boyd negotiated with police for four hours before agreeing to surrender. According to a helmet camera video released by the APD after the shooting, Boyd had been complying with their orders when an officer fired a flashbang grenade at him.
After the flashbang exploded, another officer released a K-9 to take down Boyd. Appearing to brandish a small knife, Boyd confronted the dog when Detective Keith Sandy and SWAT Officer Dominique Perez fired their rifles hitting Boyd in the arm and back with three rounds. After Boyd fell to the ground, officers shot him with beanbag rounds and handcuffed him. According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Boyd’s family, Boyd had laid in the foothills wheezing and gasping for breath for approximately twenty minutes before receiving medical attention and transportation to the University of New Mexico Hospital where he died the following day.
Responding to the scene during the four-hour standoff, State Police Officer Chris Ware arrived and began speaking with Det. Sandy. Recorded on Ware’s dash cam video two hours before the shooting, Sandy referred to Boyd as a “lunatic” and told Ware, “I’m going to shoot him in the penis with a shotgun here in a second.”
Charged with receiving payments from a private security contractor while working for the State Police, Sandy was fired from New Mexico State Police for time card fraud. In 2007, the APD hired Sandy and three of his co-conspirators even though most of them had been fired from the State Police. Under investigation from APD internal affairs, Sandy retired from the department in November 2014.
On April 10, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report documenting the APD’s pattern of using excessive force and repeated violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Justice Department found that the majority of fatal police shootings between 2010 and 2013 had been unjustified and unconstitutional. Identifying systemic deficiencies within the APD that have legitimized excessive use of force, the Justice Department noted that poor accountability and inadequate training have assisted in fostering the hostile relationship between the APD and its citizens.
In a findings letter to Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels wrote, “Albuquerque police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others. Instead, officers used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat, including individuals who posed a threat only to themselves or who were unarmed. Officers also used deadly force in situations where the conduct of the officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force.”
Instead of de-escalating situations, APD officers frequently use takedown procedures that unnecessarily increase harm to subjects and other officers. In once incident, officers fired Tasers numerous times at a man who had doused himself with gasoline. The Taser discharges endangered all present by setting the man on fire and requiring another officer to extinguish the flames.
According to the Justice Department, APD officers receive insufficient training to ensure the rights and safety of people with mental illness or in distress. Recommending a list of massive reforms for the APD, the Justice Department suggested investigating police shootings as crime scenes and overhauling police training to de-emphasize weapons use. Although the Justice Department appeared highly critical of the APD’s excessive use of violence and deadly force, the DOJ declined to order federal monitoring of the police department.
District Attorney Brandenburg’s charges against Sandy and Perez mark the first time in history that an Albuquerque police officer has been charged in an on-duty shooting. The case will proceed to a preliminary hearing in open court where a judge will determine whether there is enough probable cause to proceed to a jury trial.
“I think officer-involved shooting cases are important across the country,” said Brandenburg. “We want to share all of that information with the public. We want them to see it as it’s unfolding. I think that that’s critical to be transparent, and I believe that will be part of the healing process.”