When Cops Break Bad: Inside a Police Force Gone Wild
Over the past five years, police in Albuquerque have shot and killed 28 people and brutalized many others
BY NICK PINTO | January 29, 2015
Illustration by Patrick Concepciîn. Images in illustration: Albuquerque Police Department/AP; © Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMA
Looking west from the scrub and boulders of the Sandia Mountains, the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, sprawls across the valley of the Rio Grande, surrounded by the vast openness of the high desert. On the city’s eastern edge, the winding roads and cul-de-sacs of tony subdivisions in the Northeast Heights abruptly give way to the foothills of the mountains, whose sharp red peaks tower over the city.
On the afternoon of March 16th, 2014, Albuquerque police received a 911 call from this part of town, a man complaining that someone was illegally camping in the foothills. Two Albuquerque officers responded and, sure enough, encountered James Matthew Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia. Boyd was clearly not well, ranting, telling police that he was an agent for the Defense Department.
Unauthorized camping is a petty misdemeanor. The officers could have told Boyd to move along and left it at that. But as Officer John McDaniel approached, Boyd wouldn’t show his hands and McDaniel drew his gun. When the officers moved to pat him down, Boyd pulled out two small knives; the cops stepped back and called for backup, setting off a spectacular circus, with as many as 40 police officers reportedly joining the standoff. Among them were uniformed cops and members of the SWAT team, the tactical K-9 unit and the Repeat Offender Project squad.
Not present, Boyd’s family would later allege in a complaint, was anyone clearly in charge. Keeping Boyd surrounded, often with guns drawn, officers tried to get him to surrender his knives. Finally, after three hours, Boyd prepared to come down from the hills. “Don’t worry about safety,” he told the police. “I’m not a fucking murderer.” But as Boyd packed his stuff, both hands full of possessions, Detective Keith Sandy – who hours before, on arriving at the scene, boasted on tape that he was going to shoot “this fucking lunatic” with a Taser shotgun – tossed a flash-bang grenade, a nonlethal weapon designed to disorient and distract. Another officer fired a Taser at Boyd, and a third released a police dog on him. Boyd drew his knives again. Advancing on him, officers ordered Boyd to get down on the ground. Boyd began to turn away, and Detective Sandy of the ROP squad and Officer Dominique Perez of the SWAT team each fired three live rounds at him, hitting him once in the back and twice in his arms. Boyd collapsed, face down, crying out that he was unable to move. “Please don’t hurt me,” he said. Another officer fired three beanbag rounds from a shotgun at Boyd’s prone body. The K-9 officer again loosed his German shepherd on Boyd, and the dog tore into his legs. Finally, officers approached and handcuffed him.
After roughly 20 minutes, Boyd was transported in an ambulance to the University of New Mexico hospital. In the final hours of his life, Boyd had his right arm amputated and his spleen, a section of his lung and a length of his intestines removed. At 2:55 a.m., he was pronounced dead. He was the 22nd person killed by the Albuquerque police in just more than four years.
Boyd’s death conformed to many of the patterns governing deadly police violence in Albuquerque. Living with mental illness, Boyd fit the profile of the marginal Albuquerqueans most likely to find themselves shot to death by the city’s police. The escalation of a low-level encounter to a standoff involving numerous heavily armed officers wasn’t anything new, either. Few were surprised when footage from the lapel camera that Officer Sandy was required to keep running was inexplicably absent. And, as in so many previous officer-involved shootings, Boyd’s death was followed by a press conference by the chief of police, who declared the shooting justified and painted Boyd as a dangerous criminal.
But Boyd’s case was different. While Officer Sandy’s camera didn’t produce any video, the helmet-mounted camera of the other shooter, Officer Perez, captured the whole awful sequence of Boyd’s death. When the video was released, more than 1,000 citizens rose up in protest unlike anything the city had seen in generations. Police used tear gas against demonstrators and sent out plainclothes officers to collect surveillance footage, further enraging the protesters.
Then this year, on January 12th, Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg made the announcement that her office was pursuing murder charges against officers Perez and Sandy for the death of James Boyd. (Lawyers for both said they intend to fight the charges. Sandy’s lawyer, Sam Bregman, said in a statement, “Keith did nothing wrong. To the contrary, he followed his training and probably saved his fellow officer’s life.”)
In the past five years, the police department of Albuquerque, a city of just 550,000, has managed to kill 28 people – a per-capita kill rate nearly double that of the Chicago police and eight times that of the NYPD. Until now, not one of the officers in those 28 killings had been charged with any crime.
Taken from a video camera worn by an Albuquerque Police Department officer, shows police in a standoff with James Boyd in the Albuquerque foothills just before they fired six shots at him on March 16th, 2014. AP
Albuquerque is hardly an outlier when it comes to police impunity. Brandenburg’s announcement resonated far beyond New Mexico, as the pendulum seems to be swinging against police departments’ use of violence to enforce the law. The U.S. Justice Department in the past five years has launched 22 investigations into civil rights violations by police departments – more than twice the number it had begun in the previous five years. Surprisingly, there are no reliable national statistics on the hundreds of fatal police shootings each year, or how many officers have been charged and convicted for such killings. “My guess is that the number of criminal convictions of officers each year would be on the fingers of one hand,” says Franklin Zimring, the William G. Simon Professor of Law at UC Berkeley.
Last August, the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered an outright crisis in this country’s relationship with its police. When it was announced in November that there would be no indictment in Brown’s killing, and then, a week later, that there also wouldn’t be one in the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, protests erupted in every major city in the country.
In many respects, the systemic meltdown of the APD (department motto: “In step with our community”) offers an excellent lens through which to understand how police in America can run amok. Militarization of gear and tactics, an overreliance on specialized tactical units, a blue wall of silence that protects bad cops from the consequences of their actions, and a heavy hand in interactions with mentally ill citizens – all these factors, present in other departments around the country, are painfully evident in the story of how Albuquerque’s police came to kill so many of its citizens.
When protesters took to the city streets last spring after the release of the Boyd video, the police-reform movement sweeping the nation was still months away. Now the country at large is wrestling with questions about the very nature of law enforcement: How far do we let cops go in the pursuit of law and order, and how do we hold them accountable when they go too far? With the murder charges against the officers who killed Boyd, Albuquerque may well be the testing ground where some of the new answers to these old questions are fashioned.
Depending on how you measure things, you could follow the roots of violent law enforcement in New Mexico as far back as Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid and the rough justice of the Old West. But many observers trace Albuquerque’s recent problems with excessive force to a decade ago. In 2005, officers Richard Smith and Michael King were killed in the line of duty by a man they were picking up for a mental-health evaluation. King had been an academy classmate of Police Chief Ray Schultz, who, in a tearful press conference after the killings, called it “one of the saddest days in the history of the Albuquerque Police Department.” Inside the department, former officers say, the deaths were a turning point: Officer safety became the order of the day.
“It wasn’t about the mission,” says a former SWAT member. “The new culture was: ‘anybody you could shoot.’ “
Thomas Grover, a lawyer and retired APD officer who now represents cops in personnel disputes with the department, says, “The general directive of the department became, ‘You do what you’ve got to do to go home at night – and forget the citizens.’ ”
As Breaking Bad fans know, Albuquerque is not an easy place to be a police officer. Perhaps the only major city in the U.S. experiencing a double-dip recession, Albuquerque has a stagnant economy, and crime is a real problem. It’s not out of control, however: Albuquerque has less than half the murder rate of Chicago.
The same year Smith and King were killed, Martin Chávez, a centrist Democrat, was running for a third term as mayor on a promise to increase police staffing from 1,000 officers to 1,100. When Chávez won, the department struggled to find enough qualified hires to make good on his promise.
Mayor Martin Chavez, right, addresses his supporters and staff in Albuquerque, New Mexico on October 6th, 2009. Robert E. Rosales/AP
“Standards were getting lower and lower,” says retired APD Lt. Steven Tate, who was the director of training at the police academy at the time. “They were hiring people that other agencies in New Mexico wouldn’t take.”
The department didn’t formally change any hiring policies, Tate says. Instead, it bent the existing rules. Even in 2003, when Tate joined the meetings where the final hire decisions were made, the process was being warped. He recalls a conversation with members of the psychological staff tasked with screening applicants to make sure they were fit to be officers. “They said, ‘[Department brass] are always pressuring us to let people through,’ ” Tate says.
With the push to hire more cops, things got worse, according to Tate. The department made a number of dubious lateral hires – officers coming in from other law-enforcement departments. Previously, the APD had required all applicants, including laterals, to submit to thorough background checks as well as psychological exams. In 2006, the department began waiving those requirements for lateral hires. In testimony last year, Peter DiVasto, a psychologist then employed by the APD, said that during this period, “people were hired that . . . never came through our unit.”
Among those hires were four officers who had just quit or been fired from the state police for double-dipping – getting paid for outside work even as they were on the clock for the state. They were among the contractors teaching classes at Coyote Canyon, a training site southeast of Albuquerque run by the Department of Energy where former Navy SEALs and Delta Force operators rub shoulders with state and local police officers, taking part in realistic live-fire drills and courses with names like “Rolling Day/Night Convoy Ambushes.” Though some former APD officers defend the realistic shoot-house training and expert instruction, others wonder whether such a militarized, gun-focused environment is a healthy part of training for young, impressionable officers. “Looking back,” one former officer told local KRQE News 13 reporter Jeff Proctor when he investigated police training at Coyote Canyon, “I’m really not sure how convoy ambushing translated to working as a police officer.”
The four officers who left the state police under a cloud for double-billing at Coyote Canyon in 2007 were snapped up by the Albuquerque police that same year. At the time, a deputy chief at the APD told reporters the problematic new hires wouldn’t be carrying badges or guns; they’d just be civilian employees, collecting evidence.
It didn’t turn out that way. One of those lateral hires was Keith Sandy, who was carrying both badge and gun when he killed James Boyd on the mountainside last March. Another was Sean Wallace, who was assigned to the department’s tactical K-9 unit in 2011 when he killed Alan Gomez. Gomez, who was struggling with substance abuse, was visiting his brother’s home when he started behaving erratically, holding his brother and his girlfriend against their will and brandishing a gun. The girlfriend called 911. At some point, Gomez put the gun down – it was later found in a closet. But when Wallace shot Gomez to death as he stood in the doorway, Gomez’s hands were either empty or, according to some accounts, holding a plastic spoon. Wallace claimed he thought he saw a gun. It was his third shooting in seven years, the second in which he’d killed someone. Prosecutors ruled the shooting justified. The Gomez family sued the city and settled for $900,000.
Wallace and Sandy are in good company. In a 2011 report, the Police Executive Research Forum studied Albuquerque’s police shootings from 2006 to 2010 and found that while officers hired in any given year were generally responsible for a few shooting incidents at most, the 2007 hires were responsible for nine, nearly twice as many as the nearest cohort. Since the study was conducted, three more shootings, including those of Gomez and Boyd, have brought the 2007 hires’ total up to at least a dozen. Tate believes that the department’s leadership was feeling pressured by the political machinery to enlarge the force, and the results were predictable. “Instead of a handful of bad apples coming through,” he says, “if you start lowering your standards, it’s two handfuls.”
Keith Sandy Albuquerque Police Dept
By the beginning of this decade, as newer officers began to filter up through the department, veterans of the police force say they started to see a shift in the APD’s culture. “The idea of being a force for good was a very compelling thing for me,” says John, a former member of the department’s SWAT team, who didn’t want his real name used in this story. “And to be on the SWAT team, in my hometown, a big, violent town, then you were really a force for good.”
The men – and they were all men – John worked with when he joined the SWAT team in the early 2000s shared that ethos, he says. But as John’s colleagues began to move on, through transfers, promotions and retirements, some of their replacements brought in a different attitude. “The focus was no longer on the mission as I understood it,” John says. “It was more about shooting people – as much as you could do so legally. The new culture was: ‘Anybody you could shoot.’ ”
The culture of violence wasn’t just evident on SWAT. Federal investigators faulted the department’s “permissive policy on weapons,” in which “officers see the guns as status symbols.” The APD still allows officers to carry their own personal weapons on the job, rather than the department-issued 9mm Glocks – at least until March, when a new policy is supposed to take effect. Former Officer Sam Costales recalls constant pressure from his fellow cops to upgrade his handgun. “They were like, ‘Oh, get a .45, get a .45,’ ” Costales says. “They just wanted the bigger firepower.”
Department rules require officers to qualify on the range with their personal guns in order to receive permission to carry them on the job, but the fallout from at least one police shooting suggests that rule wasn’t always taken seriously.
After Detective Trey Economidy shot Jacob Mitschelen, 29, during a traffic- stop in 2011, it became clear that Economidy hadn’t qualified on the department’s range with the Kimber .45 he used to kill Mitschelen. (Economidy, who said Mitschelen had picked up a gun, was not charged, and the victim’s family settled with the city for $300,000.) Media scrutiny of the incident turned up other troubling indicators of the culture within the APD: On his Facebook profile, Economidy listed his profession as “human waste disposal.” Economidy wasn’t alone in his sentiments. The same year, APD Detective Pete Dwyer listed his profession on MySpace as “oxygen thief removal technician.”
Around the same time that John began to notice the anyone-you-can-shoot ethos creeping into SWAT – once a competitive assignment only available to seasoned officers – the unit began accepting green cops with as little as three years out of the academy. John says he watched in dismay as these younger, impressionable officers absorbed the new culture of violence on SWAT. “It reminded me of Animal Farm,” he says. “The dog, she has the puppies, and Napoleon came along and took the puppies away, and then the puppies show up again at the end, and they’re, like, these vicious killers. It was like that.”
John maintains that most Albuquerque cops are careful, restrained and good. But the changes on SWAT provoked a moral crisis for him. His whole career, he’d pushed back against the characterization of police as violent thugs. “I understand: We represent authority. ‘Fuck authority’ – I get that. But to take it to dehumanizing us, where you’re just a murderer, a criminal, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I found that very offensive. And so to come to the end of my career and see that it was true – it totally messed me up.”
As these changes were taking place inside the department and police shootings began to spike, there was little public outrage. “The targets of police violence were gang members, drunks or street people, and so it wasn’t like they were preying on the people who had voted for the politicians,” says Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a state senator who represents Albuquerque. “They were preying on the people the politicians were all too glad to see silenced.”
The hostility of the city’s government to its homeless population is perhaps best illustrated by an episode from 2010, when police began arresting volunteers who were feeding the downtown homeless on Sundays. “Who gave them permission to feed the homeless at all?” asked an internal police e-mail concerning the operation against the volunteers. The e-mail made clear that the initiative had the approval of City Hall. “Darren White [public-safety director at the time] is allowing us to take the gloves off and deal with some issues of concern,” the e-mail began. “WOOOOOOOOOOOO HOOOOO!!!!!!!”
For former APD Officer Dan Klein, the jailing of people for feeding the homeless shows why it’s so hard to get popular support for police reform: “If your income is above $200,000 a year, and you live in a nice gated community, and you don’t want to be bothered by the panhandler, and you don’t want your kids to be accosted by the drunk outside of Trader Joe’s, are you crying elephant tears for James Boyd?” he asks. It’s not a problem unique to Albuquerque, Klein adds. “It’s everywhere – we’re just the pimple that is bursting.”
If the public wasn’t tracking the curdling police culture, neither, for the most part, was the press. One crucial exception was Jeff Proctor, who, working first for the Albuquerque Journal and then for KRQE, broke many stories about the dirty doings inside the APD. Proctor is well-sourced in the law-enforcement community, but one thing has always struck him about the department: “The lack of whistle-blowers,” he says. “That says something.”
The story of Sam Costales helps to explain why so few officers spoke up. By his own description, Costales didn’t fit easily into the culture of the APD. Early on during his time on the force, Costales learned that many officers had a style he wanted no part of. But he figured out how to work inside the APD. He didn’t hit people and tried to avoid working with officers who did. Sometimes that wasn’t possible. Early in his career, Costales says, he agreed to write a report saying that another officer had injured his ankle while chasing a suspect, not while kicking the suspect mercilessly in the ribs once he’d caught him.
Costales retired in 2001, after 20 years on the force. At his retirement party, he says, another officer asked him what his biggest regret was. “I said, the fact that I witnessed all the crap that cops do to people and I didn’t have the guts to come forward and say anything,” Costales says. “I thought I was a good cop, but I was no better than the rest of them.”
The Justice Department found that the APD “killed civilians who did not pose an imminent threat.”
A few years after retiring, Costales agreed to come back to the department under a deal that let him keep his pension while earning a full salary. One day in the summer of 2006, he says, he was helping set up a perimeter around the site of a car chase when he witnessed Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies angrily confronting Al Unser, a 67-year-old pro race-car driver and former winner of the Indy 500, who, misunderstanding the roadblock, had attempted to drive around it on his own property. According to Costales, the deputies dragged Unser out of his car, jumped on his back, forced his face into the brambles and arrested him. The incident troubled Costales, and he reached out to Unser’s family to tell them he’d seen what happened. When Unser’s attorneys called on him to testify in Unser’s trial, Costales took the stand, describing what he’d seen.
The testimony set off a maelstrom of recriminations against Costales. The Bernalillo County sheriff called Albuquerque Police Chief Schultz to complain that one of his officers had testified against fellow cops. Schultz made a public announcement that he’d be investigating Costales for failing to report the incident up his chain of command. (Costales had reported the incident, but it had been dismissed as insignificant.) Perhaps emboldened by Schultz, the secretary of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association e-mailed the sheriff to apologize for Costales, saying most officers were “embarrassed and ashamed” of Costales. The e-mail found its way to the media. Costales says that word spread through the ranks that if he requested backup on the job, he wouldn’t get it.
Costales became anxious and stressed. He started seeing a psychiatrist. His request for a transfer off street patrol to a safer post was denied. Instead, his superiors threatened to assign him to the auto-theft division, which was housed inside the sheriff’s department substation – the same people Costales had testified against. Costales sued Schultz and the APD in federal court, and in 2009 a jury found that Schultz had violated Costales’ civil rights. The city eventually reached an almost $1 million settlement with Costales.
The same year Schultz cost Albuquerque nearly $1 million, Martin Chávez lost his re-election campaign to Richard Berry, a former state congressman. Bucking tradition, the new mayor kept Schultz on the job rather than hiring his own chief. Berry continued to stick by Schultz even as the APD’s body count started to mount. Officers killed nine people in 2010. One of the first was Kenneth Ellis III, a decorated 25-year-old veteran of the Iraq War who was suffering from PTSD and had been kicked out of his Veterans Affairs treatment program. One day, while investigating a stolen car, cops cornered Ellis in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. Ellis pulled out his gun, held it to his head and phoned his mother for help. Soon, he was surrounded by police officers. He never threatened anyone but himself. Nonetheless, after a nine-minute standoff, Officer Brett Lampiris-Tremba shot Ellis in the neck, killing him. After he fired the shot, Lampiris-Tremba asked, “Fuck, was that me?”
Christopher Torres Dean Hanson/Journal/Albuquerque Journal/Zuma
In 2011, the APD killed another five people, including Christopher Torres. Growing up in Albuquerque as the youngest of three boys, Torres was cheerful, funny and bright, dreaming of growing up to become a lawyer like his father. “The world was at his doorstep,” Stephen Torres recalls of his son. But around Christopher’s senior year in high school, his family began to notice something changing in him. In 2003, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The family was devastated but rallied around Christopher, finding good psychiatrists and getting him on a regimen of medication. A family friend gave him a job at a steel-manufacturing business. “He was very high-functioning,” says Christopher’s mother, Renetta, a high-ranking official in the county government.
Stephen was painfully aware of the risks people living with mental illness face when interacting with police. So he proactively alerted the APD to Christopher’s condition, making sure his son was assigned a Crisis Intervention Team officer (a specialist trained to de-escalate interactions with people in mental distress), and asking to be notified first if the police ever had cause to want to speak with Christopher.
On the afternoon of April 12th, 2011, Christopher, then 27, was relaxing in his backyard when detectives Christopher Brown and Richard Hilger called to him over the fence. Brown and Hilger were investigating a road-rage incident from months earlier in which Christopher was suspected. Whether the detectives were there to arrest Christopher or simply interview him is unclear – they’ve testified to both at various times. In any case, the detectives hadn’t done much homework on Christopher – they didn’t know he was schizophrenic, and they hadn’t contacted his CIT officer or his family.
Dressed in plainclothes, neither officer had brought his department-mandated cameras with him on the assignment. According to Detective Brown’s testimony, he hopped the fence and approached Christopher, taking his handcuffs out of their case. Christopher raised his hand as if to strike Brown, but Brown hit him first, and the two went down on the ground. In the resulting scuffle, Detective Hilger hit Christopher repeatedly in the face. Christopher, apparently confused, shouted, “I’m a good guy! This is my house!” Hilger testified that Christopher managed to wrangle his gun out of its holster, and that Hilger called out for Brown to shoot. Brown, who had been rejected by the APD before successfully reapplying after the requirements for lateral hires were relaxed, fired three shots at Christopher, hitting him all three times and killing him.
Afterward, police swarmed the neighborhood, setting off flash-bang grenades and, according to the Torreses, ransacking their home. If the intention of all this mayhem was, as the family suspects, to muddy the water after a transparently bad shooting, it didn’t work. Unbeknownst to the police, a neighbor had witnessed crucial parts of the fatal encounter through chinks in her backyard fence. Christie Apodaca would later testify that far from the struggle Brown and Hilger described, she never saw Christopher resisting – just one detective hitting him over and over again while the other detective held him down.
At trial for the Torreses’ civil suit, the police version of events quickly unraveled. “The testimony of the Detectives . . . is inconsistent with each other, inconsistent with what Ms. Apodaca saw, and inconsistent with the physical evidence,” wrote District Judge C. Shannon Bacon in her findings. “The testimony of the Detectives is not credible.”
Christopher’s death was unusual because it brought the deadly violence of the APD into a relatively comfortable neighborhood, to a respected, professional family. Renetta Torres says the mother of another man killed by the APD told her that nothing was going to change until the police violence came to a family like the Torreses. “She said she was very sorry that we lost Christopher,” says Renetta, “but she felt that it probably took something like Christopher’s killing to move forward.”
The Torreses banded together with relatives of other people killed by the APD and began looking for justice. Along with Kenneth Ellis II, the father of the veteran killed in the 7-Eleven parking lot, and Mike Gomez, whose son Alan was killed standing in his brother’s doorway, as well as more than a dozen others, they began petitioning the government of Albuquerque to do something. “We’d go to the city council,” says Gomez. “They’d look at us, they’d act like they cared, and then they wouldn’t do anything.”
Renetta Torres and her husband Stephen Torres stand in the spot outside the westside home where their son Christopher was shot by APD officer. Roberto E. Rosales/Albuqueque Journal/Zuma
After more than a year of unsuccessfully pleading with local elected officials to rein in the APD, in November 2012 the relatives of the victims, with the support of groups like the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center, finally persuaded the U.S. Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department. When the DOJ released its findings last April, shortly after Boyd was killed, they amounted to a scorching indictment of the APD and everyone who had enabled its slide into brutality. Reviewing 20 fatal police shootings from 2009 to 2012, the report found a majority of them to be unconstitutional. “Albuquerque police officers shot and killed civilians who did not pose an imminent threat,” the report found, noting that “Albuquerque police officers’ own recklessness sometimes led to their use of deadly force.”
Citing the case of Ellis, the veteran killed while holding a gun to his own head, the report found that “police officers used deadly force on individuals in crisis who posed no threat to anyone but themselves,” and cited multiple examples of “excessive force against individuals with mental illness, against individuals with impaired faculties and against individuals who require medical treatment.”
As stark as the report’s conclusions were, its details, chronicling in dispassionate tones one horrible abuse after another, are perhaps more disturbing. A typical passage describes a 2009 encounter with a drunk 60-year-old, identified in the report by the pseudonym “Albert,” whose friend had called the cops claiming Albert threatened him with a knife and a pellet gun:
“Forty-seven officers responded to the scene, including snipers and officers from specialized tactical units. After some delay, Albert complied with officers’ orders to drop a knife that he was holding . . . and walked outside unarmed. After an additional delay, he stopped and began to turn. At that point, an officer was ordered to ‘bag him.’ An officer with a shotgun fired five successive rounds of beanbags at Albert. Another officer deployed a flash-bang grenade. Another officer shot him with a canister of four wooden batons, two of which penetrated his skin. Another officer deployed a police canine that bit Albert in the arm, tearing his flesh as the dog tried to pull him down. . . . Two officers fired Tasers at Albert; one of them fired six five-second cycles of electricity into him. Albert finally collapsed, and officers carried him away unconscious, leaving behind a trail of blood and urine.”
The Justice report places much of the blame for these problems on a macho, dick-swinging culture of violence among street-level officers, beginning with training that “leads officers to believe that violent outcomes are normal and desirable.” But it concludes that that culture has been enabled by the department’s leadership and allowed to flourish by ineffective civilian oversight. “Officers have faced little scrutiny from their superiors,” the report found. “External oversight is broken and has allowed the department to remain unaccountable.”
The Justice Department investigation gave rise to some optimism that the APD and city government might finally recognize that they have a problem and undertake real reform. That hope was kindled further when, four months after the DOJ’s announcement that it would be opening an investigation, Schultz declared his intention to retire as police chief. But close observers of the department saw reasons to be skeptical that anything was really improving.
For one thing, changes in the police leadership weren’t exactly encouraging. Mayor Berry selected Gordon Eden, a politically connected former U.S. marshal who had most recently headed up the Department of Public Safety under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Upon his appointment, Eden promised a proactive reform campaign to “take the department well beyond any findings the DOJ has.” But Eden’s subsequent actions proved disappointing and baffling to many.
Two days before the DOJ singled out the city’s SWAT team for special criticism in its blistering report, Eden announced that his deputy chief would be Robert Huntsman, who had spent 10 years as the APD lieutenant in charge of special units, including SWAT. A month later, Eden made another top-level appointment, promoting Tim Gonterman to major. Eight years earlier, a federal jury had awarded a homeless African-American man named Jerome Hall $300,000 in a suit alleging that Gonterman, then a patrol officer, had applied a Taser to the unarmed Hall so relentlessly that Hall was eventually hospitalized with burns to his face, stomach, back, neck, shoulders and calf. According to his lawyer, Hall also lost part of his ear to the Taser burns.
“I’ve used Tasers,” says Klein, the former officer. “The only way you can burn someone’s ear off is if you’re torturing them. And that guy’s a major now!”
It also became clear that for all his public rhetoric of cooperation, Mayor Berry and his administration weren’t just going to meekly accept the Justice Department’s findings and recommendations. In June 2014, city lawyers argued in federal court that the DOJ’s conclusions shouldn’t be allowed into evidence in a trial concerning police use of force, saying the report was plagued by “inconsistent language,” “inaccuracies” and “questions of reliability.”
The Albuquerque Police Department declined to make its leadership available for this story and didn’t respond to further requests for comment, instead suggesting an interview with Edmund Perea, a former commanding officer with the APD now in private practice as a lawyer. “Most active members of the community as well as police personnel saw these issues coming down the tracks like a train for years,” he says. “There were a lot of parts that may have been allowed to fester without administrative attention. As we look back at the situation here, no one involved in police policy and operation should get a pass.”
Protestors hold up signs protesting Albuquerque Police Department officers as they marched to APD headquarters in Albuquerque on March 25th, 2013. AP
Last October, after months of secretive negotiations, the Justice Department and the city of Albuquerque announced the terms of a settlement agreement – the steps Albuquerque would have to take to avoid being sued by the federal government and potentially giving up control of its police department. The terms of the 106-page agreement aren’t terribly surprising: They include reforms to the department’s policies and training, and how the department investigates officers’ use of force. The department must beef up its protections for people with mental illness; its tactical units must be made more accountable; oversight bodies must be instituted. In January, it announced the selection of a monitor to oversee Albuquerque’s compliance.
People who know the APD are worried the DOJ’s intervention won’t be enough. “I don’t see any evidence, behaviorwise, of a buy-in from the police department,” says Steven Tate, the retired lieutenant in charge of training. “I’m not seeing any indication that they actually want to fix the issue. They just want to do the bare minimum. The DOJ can say, ‘You need to have these policies.’ Well, we have had a lot of them. Ninety percent of what they said should have been going on in the past.”
The problem isn’t policies, it’s people, says state Sen. Ortiz y Pino. He thinks the only solution is to clear out generations of bad cops. “Let’s get them out of here, let’s really start out with a new mentality,” he says. “We’re gonna be plagued with these guys for years to come. They know this is all fake. They can hunker down until the Department of Justice goes away, and then it will be back to business as usual.”
Of course, to truly change the culture of the APD would require a police chief committed to that project. Such a chief would have to be appointed by a mayor who made it a priority. And as the anger that flared after the release of the Boyd video has subsided, many doubt that Albuquerque voters care enough about the issue to demand a mayor who will make police reform a priority.
“We have the police that the people of Albuquerque want,” says Ortiz y Pino. “You’ve got 25 percent who really are concerned about the violence and the direction we’re going in. But if you put it to a vote, I shudder to think how it would be.”
Shannon Kennedy, one of the lawyers suing the city over the death of James Boyd, believes any real police reform is going to require changes that extend far beyond the department. “If you don’t have a response that’s as grand as the evil that’s been committed, then what the fuck are you doing?” she asks. “We’ve been individually suing officers for 20 years. Where are we? It’s gotten us nowhere.”
On January 9th, the list of people shot by an on-duty Albuquerque police officer grew again. Lt. Greg Brachle was working on a low-level drug bust when he opened fire on a black car parked in a McDonald’s lot. This time, though, the fusillade from a policeman’s gun didn’t hit a criminal, or a homeless person, or someone living with mental illness. Two of the four people in the car were undercover cops on Brachle’s own team, and one of them was badly injured and listed in critical condition after multiple surgeries. Just what went wrong in the course of the $60 drug buy remains unclear, but the incident did little to reassure the people of Albuquerque that their police were turning over a new leaf of professionalism and restraint in the new year.
Even as this discouraging news story was still unfolding, though, a more promising one emerged. The Monday after the parking-lot shooting, District Attorney Brandenburg announced that she was bringing murder charges against Perez and Sandy in the killing of James Boyd. But the road to bringing the cops to trial might be a rocky one. On October 7th, Brandenburg says, she was in contact with an attorney for the police union to let them know she was leaning toward bringing charges. A week later, the Albuquerque Journal filed a public-records request for a previously undisclosed yearlong police investigation into Brandenburg herself, accusing her of bribery and witness intimidation. Brandenburg’s son had been accused of petty thievery by his friends and a couple he used to live with, and the police alleged Brandenburg had pressured the victims not to press charges. Strangely, police never interviewed Brandenburg herself. Anonymous sources had tipped off the Journal to the investigation long before the report was delivered to the state attorney general.
Inevitably, the investigation had political implications. A top city official cited the probe in a letter to Brandenburg, questioning the objectivity of the DA’s office and suggesting future shootings should be referred to a special prosecutor. Brandenburg denies trying to silence her son’s accusers and won’t say if she thinks the investigation is being used as leverage against her now. “You can put two and two together,” Brandenburg says. “You can speculate on that.”
The night after Brandenburg announced the charges, APD officers shot and killed yet another person. But when police and city officials gathered for a briefing, a city lawyer barred the DA’s representative from the meeting, saying the DA had a conflict of interest because of the murder charges. Brandenburg’s office has argued that the move violates the city’s settlement agreement with the Justice Department.
It will be months before a judge hears the case against Perez and Sandy and decides whether there’s enough evidence to try them for murder or some lesser charge. For observers in Albuquerque, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Mike Gomez, who has helped lead the fight to hold police accountable since his son was killed, says the stark video evidence makes this the best chance to put the brakes on a police force out of control.
“The guy was killed in front of the whole world,” he says. “If we can’t hold you accountable for this, what can we hold you accountable for? What’s it going to take?”