ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. » Deadly police encounters in New York and Missouri resulted in no charges against the officers recently amid closed-door grand jury proceedings that infuriated some members of the public. Faced with a similar decision for a high-profile police shooting in New Mexico, the top prosecutor in Albuquerque took an entirely different approach.
The Albuquerque district attorney brought murder charges Monday against two officers who shot a mentally ill homeless man during a standoff last year, bypassing a grand jury and taking the case before a judge who will decide at a public hearing whether the case should move forward.
"Unlike Ferguson and unlike in New York City, we’re going to know. The public is going to have that information," District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said. "I think officer-involved shooting cases are important around the country where we want to share all that information with the public."
The March shooting death of 38-year-old James Boyd led to violent protests and helped lead to a major federal-ordered overhaul of the Albuquerque Police Department amid a rash of police shootings over the last five years.
It also came during a year when police tactics came under intense scrutiny nationwide, fueled by the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of another unarmed man in New York City. Grand juries declined to charge officers in those cases, leading to large protests.
Police said SWAT team member Dominique Perez and former detective Keith Sandy fatally shot Boyd, who had frequent violent run-ins with law enforcement. Video from an officer’s helmet camera showed Boyd appearing to surrender when officers opened fire, but a defense lawyer characterized him as an unstable suspect who was "unpredictably and dangerously close to a defenseless officer while he was wielding two knives."
"I’m looking forward … to the DA’s office presenting one single witness that says this is murder," said Sam Bregman, a lawyer for Sandy.
Brandenburg refused to provide specifics about the reasons for bringing the case, but said it was a lengthy and deliberate process involving several members of her staff.
A date for the preliminary hearing has not been set. The officers have not been booked or arrested. That would not happen until a judge renders a decision at the preliminary hearing. A date has not been set.
The case suddenly elevates the stature of the district attorney, who has been elected to four consecutive terms and been in office since 2001. Brandenburg is the daughter of a prosecutor who served as a public defender before becoming the prosecutor in New Mexico’s most populous city.
The criminal charges were the first Brandenburg has brought against officers in a shooting. She is also waging a fight with the Albuquerque Police Department over allegations that she committed bribery while intervening on behalf of her son in a burglary case.
Police believe she should be charged with bribery because, they say, she offered to pay a victim not to press charges. The attorney general’s office is handling the matter.
Brandenburg said the charges against police had nothing to with the agency’s investigation into her and that her office got the case long before the bribery claims came to light.
Each officer faces a single count in the March death of the 38-year-old Boyd. The charges allow prosecutors to pursue either first-degree or second-degree murder against the officers.
Even before Boyd’s death, the U.S. Justice Department was investigating the use of force by Albuquerque police. The department recently signed an agreement to make changes after the government issued a harsh report. The agreement requires police to provide better training for officers and to dismantle troubled units.
Since 2010, Albuquerque police have been involved in more than 40 shootings — 27 of them deadly. After Boyd’s death, outrage over the trend grew and culminated with protests that included a demonstration where authorities fired tear gas and another that shut down a City Council meeting.
Bregman said there is "not one shred" of evidence to support the case and insisted the officer had no criminal intent when he encountered Boyd. He said Sandy followed training procedures outlined by the police department.
Luis Robles, an attorney for Perez, said he was "confident that the facts will vindicate officer Perez’s actions in this case."
The FBI is also investigating, but U.S. authorities have not said if the officers will face federal charges.
Police are legally empowered to use deadly force when appropriate, and a 1989 Supreme Court decision concluded that an officer’s use of force must be evaluated through the "perspective of a reasonable officer on scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."
Philip Matthew Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies police misconduct, found that local officers were charged in 41 cases with murder or manslaughter stemming from on-duty shootings between 2005 and 2011. By comparison, over the same period, police agencies reported more than 2,700 cases of justifiable homicide by law enforcement officers to the FBI, and that statistic is incomplete.
The figures suggest it’s difficult to get a conviction "because juries are so reluctant to second-guess an officer’s split-second decision," Stinson said.
Associated Press writer Sadie Gurman in Denver contributed to this report.