In Albuquerque, police killings divide law enforcement agencies
After a fitful few hours of sleep, Kari Brandenburg reads a note every morning on a bulletin board in her closet, written to herself: “Being a hero is enduring for one moment more.”
The sentiment has become a source of inspiration for Brandenburg, Albuquerque’s chief prosecutor, and a signal of how deep the rift has grown between the Bernalillo County district attorney’s office and the police in this city.
For months, the region’s two top law enforcement agencies have been locked in a conflict over last year’s fatal police shooting of a mentally ill homeless man — a case the officers said was self-defense, but which Brandenburg alleged was murder.
Since January, the civic drama has featured dueling investigations and mutual accusations of wrongdoing, but at its heart is the city’s record on fatal police shootings: 28 people have been shot to death by Albuquerque police over the last five years, a per capita rate eight times that of New York.
The shootings have sparked protests across the city, and a U.S. Justice Department report in 2014 found excessive deadly force and “broken” oversight at the Police Department. But not a single officer had been charged in a shooting during the last 50 years, according to the Albuquerque Journal, and certainly none during the 14 years Brandenburg has held office.
That changed Jan. 12, when Brandenburg said she was filing murder charges against Officer Dominique Perez and recently retired Det. Keith Sandy in the March 2014 death of the homeless man, James Boyd, who had been illegally camping in the scrubby foothills on the eastern edge of town.
Officials said Boyd had wielded two knives, but a police video of the incident shared widely online showed he’d taken them out of his pocket only after one of the dozens of police officers confronting him at his campsite fired a stun grenade and another officer unleashed a police dog. Still, Boyd appeared in the video to be turning away as officers fired six shots. He quickly collapsed.
“Please don’t hurt me anymore,” Boyd says in the video.
Brandenburg had long been considered a friend of the Police Department — her father, Jim Brandenburg, served as district attorney for four years and chief trial attorney for eight years before that in the 1960s. She grew up with police officers coming to her home at all hours of the night seeking warrants — “strong, tall, they looked like heroes,” she recalls.
Brandenburg had never found criminal culpability on the part of the police, unlike Justice Department findings that the majority of 20 deadly police shootings in the city from 2009 to 2012 were unconstitutional and often involved people who were, like Boyd, mentally ill and in “crisis.”
But that report came out a month after Boyd’s death, amid a national uproar over police shootings that had ignited citizen protests in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and beyond.
In Albuquerque, Boyd’s death set off a furious reaction; police deployed riot tactics and tear gas to disperse protesters who were hurling rocks and stopping traffic. By the end of March, a flash poll taken by the Albuquerque Journal suggested that only a little more than a third of registered voters had confidence in the Police Department.
“Our police do seem quick on the draw,” said City Council President Rey Garduño.
“The vast majority of our police officers conduct themselves with the highest level of integrity, professionalism and honor,” Mayor Richard Berry said as he asked the Justice Department to fast-track its review of the department. But Boyd’s death, he said, had been “a game changer.”
By January, when Brandenburg had finished her investigation, she scheduled a news conference.
“I have a job to do and I’m doing it,” the prosecutor said, announcing she would be taking the charges against Perez and Sandy to a public preliminary hearing before a judge, rather than a secret grand jury proceeding, as a Missouri prosecutor did in last year’s controversial police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
“Unlike Ferguson and unlike in New York City, we’re going to know. The public is going to have that information,” Brandenburg said.
That’s when the conflict started.
The next day, when another Albuquerque resident was shot to death by police, city attorneys turned away Brandenburg’s deputies when they showed up, as was their custom, to monitor the investigation.
Meanwhile, another criminal investigation began to complicate the picture. Brandenburg’s then-26-year-old son, Justin Koch, was being investigated in connection with a series of residential burglaries. Police said they had evidence that Brandenburg and another family member had offered to reimburse the victims of at least two of the thefts — acquaintances of Koch who’d phoned the family about their suspicions — if they didn’t report it to the police.
Even as Brandenburg was zeroing in on a decision to file charges against the police officers in Boyd’s death, the Police Department was asking the state attorney general’s office to look at whether Brandenburg was guilty of bribery or witness intimidation in the case — charges she strongly denied.
The whole issue raised questions in the news media about whether the district attorney had filed charges against the police as retaliation for the bribery investigation — or was it the other way around?
Brandenburg strongly denied any retaliation, but her office couldn’t carry on a murder prosecution of the officers who shot Boyd, attorneys for the officers argued, when she was the target of a criminal investigation by the same Police Department.
Each side began a series of calculated leaks, even as they decried the power struggle playing out in the media.
The news media, meanwhile, has been reporting the details aggressively on its own. A local reporter digging through the case file uncovered a recording of two police officers investigating Brandenburg who conceded to each other that the case against her was “super weak,” but that “it’s going to destroy a career.”
The bribery investigation has been handed over to the New Mexico attorney general’s office, and defense lawyers have demanded that Brandenburg appoint a special prosecutor to investigate any cases involving the Police Department, especially the Boyd case.
Last week, they won: A judge ordered Brandenburg to find an independent prosecutor to take the case. It was not easy. The attorney general’s office declined, as did a slew of local prosecutors and lawyers until Brandenburg settled on former Assistant Dist. Atty. Randy McGinn.
McGinn recently won a $6-million damage ruling for the parents of 27-year-old Christopher Torres, who died in 2011 when two Albuquerque police officers serving an arrest warrant jumped over the fence into his backyard, punched him and shot him in the back three times. State law caps such payments at $400,000, and the family has filed a separate federal lawsuit.
Police officials have refused to discuss either the shooting cases or the investigation against Brandenburg. Chief Gordon Eden refused repeated interview requests from The Times.
But Brandenburg has maintained a public presence. At a news conference last week announcing the appointment of the special prosecutor, she spoke bluntly about the state of the city.
“We’re in a crisis. We are in a crisis that I’m not sure we’re going to recover from,” she said. “My friends are talking about moving. Everybody feels powerless in making things better.”
The problem, she said, is “a lack of faith in government, a lack of faith in elected officials, a lack of faith in police.”
When the conference ended, Brandenburg walked to the back of her press room and fixed her spokeswoman Kayla Anderson with a querying gaze.
“Did it go OK?” she mouthed to Anderson.
Anderson rushed over, assuring her that it did.
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