In the wake of what many consider to be failures on the part of prosecutors to obtain indictments against the police officers responsible for killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a story out of New Mexico may shed some light on why some prosecutors seem to shy away from aggressively pursuing charges against law enforcement officers.
As Think Progress reports, this story began last October when Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg told a police union attorney that she was considering filing charges against the cops who shot and killed a homeless man, James Boyd, 38, after Albuquerque police approached him for illegally camping.
Avis elaborated in that report, writing:
Last October, Kari Brandenburg told a police-union attorney that she was leaning toward filing murder charges against the officers who shot Boyd. Within weeks, Brandenburg found herself the target of an investigation by the Albuquerque Police Department. Her twenty-six-year-old son, who was addicted to heroin, had stolen thousands of dollars of his friends’ belongings, and Brandenburg had offered to reimburse them. In late November, an Albuquerque detective gave the state attorney general an investigative file that he said showed that Brandenburg had bribed and intimidated witnesses. In a recording of a conversation between officers working on the case, a detective with the Criminal Intelligence Unit acknowledged that the evidence against Brandenburg appeared insubstantial. He said, “There might be charges—they’re super-weak—it’s probably not gonna go anywhere, but it’s gonna destroy a career.”
A week after the investigation became public, Brandenburg told me that she would continue as district attorney, despite calls for her to leave the office. When I asked her if she saw the investigation as a form of intimidation, a way to prevent her from indicting the officers who shot Boyd, she said, “I think right now it’s best if other people connect the dots.”
At a press conference announcing the charges, Brandenburg said, “I am not going to be intimidated.”
Then on January 13, 2015, just one day after announcing that she would pursue those criminal charges, there was another police shooting in the city.
As Aviv tells it,
According to the police department, the man, who was suspected of stealing, ran away from the officers and fired his gun in their direction. Two cops returned fire, killing the man. One of the cops had killed a civilian in 2011 and the other had been sued in 2010 for using excessive force. Brandenburg sent a prosecutor from her office [Chief Deputy DA Sylvia Martinez] to the scene of the crime, as she has at every officer shooting in the past decade. But, for the first time, the police [led by Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Levy] barred the prosecutor from attending the police briefing or participating in the investigation. The police department’s attorney told her to go home, saying that her legal advice was not needed.
Albuquerque’s KRQE spoke to Brandenburg who told them that Levy had cited the charges against the two officers in the Boyd case in barring Martinez from that briefing.
Sylvia [Martinez] was told that our office has a conflict of interest because we charged the officers. I have never seen anything like this, ever. Clearly, this could compromise the integrity of the investigation of this shooting.
To make matters worse, KRQE adds that:
Prosecutors’ presence at the scenes of police shootings and inside the investigatory briefings has been ubiquitous for decades here. In fact, the DA’s participation in the investigations is memorialized in a written agreement with APD [Albuquerque Police Department] and other agencies signed in 2004.
That agreement, governing investigations into police shootings in Bernalillo Country, states that representatives from the Albuquerque PD, New Mexico State Police, the County Sheriff’s Office AND the District Attorney’s Office are to designate representatives to take part in the investigation.
That agreement, spelling out the process for investigating police shootings, was part of ongoing reform efforts by the Albuquerque PD as the result of an 18-month U.S. Justice Department investigation that found widespread use of excessive force by Albuquerque PD officers.
As Think Progress reports:
Albuquerque is now under federal monitoring and subject to an agreement known as a consent decree, after the Justice Department investigation yielded scathing findings that a majority of the Albuquerque police department’s 20 fatal shootings between 2009 and 2012 were unconstitutional.
Brandenburg told KRQE that: “It is my opinion that the city violated that agreement and that means they violated their agreement with the DOJ.”
Mayor Richard Berry issued a written statement shortly after Brandenburg announced the murder charges against officer Dominique Perez of the Albuquerque PD SWAT team and former detective Keith Sandy in the Boyd shooting:
We trust the judicial system will provide the family, our community and the officers a fair, transparent and unbiased opportunity to explore and present the facts as they relate to this tragic event. It is important for all of us to allow the process to progress without prejudice in order for our community to move forward.
However, if the actions of the Albuquerque PD are any indication, there is no reason to expect anything fair or transparent to emerge from the investigation.
Footnote 1: To put all this in perspective, Think Progress reports that “[t]he shooting of Boyd was one of two controversial police shootings in a period of less than ten days, and one of more than 37 in the city since 2010, 23 of them fatal. To put this volume in context, New York City saw about the same number of shootings during that period for a population that is 15 times as high, according to the ACLU of New Mexico.”