A New Mexico prosecutor on Monday said she was pursuing murder charges against two Albuquerque police officers involved in the shooting death of a homeless camper last year, a process she vowed would be more transparent than the grand juries that were convened but failed to indict officers in Missouri and New York.
Her decision comes at a time of intense scrutiny of police tactics after last summer's fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of another unarmed black man on New York's Staten Island, both of which led to confrontational weeks-long protests. Grand juries in both cases declined to charge the white officers involved, leading to nationwide unrest and the catchphrase "Black lives matter."
"Unlike Ferguson and unlike in New York City, some recent high-profile cases, we're going to know," Bernalillo County Dist. Atty. Kari Brandenburg said at a news conference. "The public's going to have that information, you all will have seen the witnesses, heard the argument and you'll understand hopefully perhaps why the judge made the decision that he or she made."
The Albuquerque Police Department has been criticized for a string of fatal confrontations and was investigated by the U.S. Justice Department, which in April said it had found a pattern of excessive force by officers.
Brandenburg filed documents in court proposing an open charge of murder against Officer Dominique Perez and former Det. Keith Sandy, who was allowed to retire eight months after the shooting. An open charge of murder means that a range of counts could be considered — no charges, minor charges or first-degree murder. Filing the case this way puts the onus on a judge to determine whether there is probable cause. During the proceeding, the accused may present evidence and witnesses, unlike a grand jury.
The case centers on James "Abba" Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man who had been camping illegally in the Sandia Foothills and whose shooting death on March 16 was captured by an officer's helmet-mounted camera. Boyd suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and the video shows him acting erratically and brandishing two small knives multiple times during what came to be a four-hour standoff.
Toward the end of the video, he is slow to comply with police commands to leave the area, and an officer throws a flash-bang grenade at his feet while a second officer releases a police dog that attacks Boyd. Boyd again draws from his pockets what police later said were knives and turns away from the officers, who open fire. According to a wrongful death suit filed against the city, two officers shot three rounds each, hitting Boyd three times, in his side, back and arm.
Boyd's last words on the recording were, "Please don't hurt me" and "I can't move." The release of the video spurred outrage in New Mexico and nationally.
The type of flash-bang grenade used in the Boyd incident is the subject of an investigation by foundation-supported ProPublica released Monday, which found that the grenades, while described as less lethal, are often as hot as lava and can leave people with burns and scarring.
The lawyer for Sandy said that the charges were unjustified and that his client did nothing wrong.
"Unfortunately the district attorney has made a decision, which is a terrible, terrible decision," Sam Bregman said. "There is not one shred of evidence to support any criminal intent."
Bregman said his client, a 20-year veteran, "had not only the right but the duty to defend a fellow officer from a mentally unstable, violent man wielding two knives."
It was not immediately clear whether the second officer, Perez, had hired an attorney.
Since 2010, Albuquerque police officers have shot 41 people, 28 of them fatally, which prompted the federal investigation by the Justice Department. Under a settlement agreement announced in November, federal officials will appoint an independent monitor to oversee the department as it implements sweeping reforms to change how its officers use force.
In the last five years, the Justice Department has opened more than 20 investigations into police departments across the country, resulting in 15 consent decrees, including ones in New Orleans, Seattle and Portland, Ore. Several other departments have reached out-of-court agreements.
The Justice Department has sued four police agencies that rejected its findings, including the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, which includes Phoenix. An investigation into the Ferguson Police Department is ongoing.
Indictments of police officers in fatal shootings are rare, though not unprecedented. In 2011, Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia, was beaten by Fullerton police when he wouldn't follow their commands. Thomas died a few days later. That scene, like the death of Eric Garner in New York, was captured on video — with Thomas shouting, "Dad, help me!" — and led to charges against three officers. Two were acquitted; prosecutors dropped charges against the third.
Quantifying cases of deaths at the hands of police has long been problematic. The FBI doesn't collect data on police use of deadly force and civilian efforts to collect this data nationally are in their initial stages, but rely on crowd-sourcing the data. The failure to count such deaths has been fuel for critics of police use-of-force policies who contend that officers are assured a soft landing before a grand jury because prosecutors have to rely on those officers' testimony in other criminal cases.
A preliminary hearing is planned for the two officers but not yet scheduled.
Brandenburg has endured friction with the department since the investigation into the Boyd shooting and a police inquiry into her alleged misconduct involving burglary charges against her son. The New Mexico Attorney General's Office is reviewing the merits of those allegations.
Asked about it at Monday's news conference, Brandenburg said: "I am not going to be intimidated. As long as I have a breath in my body, I am going to represent the people I was elected to represent."