Is New Mexico Justice Crisis at a Tipping Point?
In one of the most emotional demonstrations of its kind in recent New Mexico history, hundreds of people surged through the streets of downtown Albuquerque the evening of March 25 shouting for justice for homeless camper James Boyd and other men shot to death by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD).
To the loud beat of drums, a fired-up crowd chanted “We are all James Boyd” and “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Killer Cops Have Got to Go.” A mock coffin bearing the names of men killed by APD, as well as the 11 women and girls found murdered on Albuquerque’s West Mesa in 2009, accompanied the procession.
Representing a cross-section of Burqueno society, the marchers were brown, black, red, and white. Young and old, gay and straight alike, the participants were students, teachers, musicians, war veterans, and people from all walks of life.
The 38-year-old Boyd was shot March 16 by APD officers Kevin Sandy and Dominique Perez after an hours-long standoff in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Boyd had waved knives at officers responding to a call, but a police recorded video showed the man apparently disengaging from the confrontation when he was shot by Perez and Sandy.
The homeless man, who was later reported as suffering from mental illness and having a criminal record, died from his wounds on March 17.
The Boyd killing made a splash on national and international news, with the police video going viral on the Internet and eliciting hundreds of thousands of views and comments on news websites and social media.
“Don’t Go to New Mexico!” headlined Ciudad Juarez’s Lapolaka.com news site, which included a link to the video along with its Spanish-language story.
Likely, the diffusion of the graphic footage was likely a big contributing factor to the large turnout at the March 25 protest. The demonstration was called by the ANSWER Coalition, March Forward, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, Stop the War Machine, the National Association of the Mentally Ill, and other organizations.
Coming as it did during a time when APD was already under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for 17 officer-involved fatal shootings between 2010 and 2012, the Boyd shooting might well represent the tipping point in a justice crisis gripping New Mexico’s largest city.
“They just traded one Schultz for another Schultz,” said protester Frank Ortega, who identified himself as a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a group which has long protested excessive force by APD.
Ortega was referring to former APD Chief Ray Schultz, who retired last year amid controversy.
Counting only weeks on the job, the new APD chief is New Mexico State Police veteran Gorden Eden. Ortega contended that Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, who first took office in 2009, achieved his goal of “cleaning up the (public safety) mess” left behind by predecessor Martin Chavez at the cost of “20 some dead and millions in lawsuits and a police force that is killing people.”
Carrying a large picture of a young man in military uniform, Ortega said the photo was of an individual who was killed by APD about 10 years ago. “It’s a heck of a thing to come home from the service and die,”
Not unlike police actions in Mexico that have led to crises of governance and the loss of institutional credibility, the Boyd shooting, fresh on the wounds of the many others which have preceded it, is threatening to transform into a political crisis. Many of the citizens who turned out for the March 25 protest hold Mayor Berry responsible for the police shootings.
In an upbeat State of the City address delivered last November, Berry claimed success for declining crime rates but did not mention the fatal police shootings, taxpayer payouts for the resultant court cases and the DOJ investigation of the local police force. Berry, however, vowed to get a law passed that would allow retired APD officers to rejoin the force for five years. The former Republican state legislator was handily reelected mayor last fall.
Now, only a few months later, Berry and his new police chief are on the defensive. Returning to Albuquerque this week from a trip, Berry quickly disassociated his office from comments made by Chief Eden last week that pronounced Boyd’s shooting as a justified one.
Berry characterized the video depicting the shooting as “horrific,” labeling Eden’s comments as a “mistake” in lieu of a complete investigation. The Duke City’s mayor has endorsed an “independent” investigation of the incident involving the DOJ and the Las Cruces Police Department. Eden, meanwhile, later backtracked on his earlier comments, calling them “premature,” before abruptly ending a news conference with reporters.
Boyd’s violent death recast divergences over the management of the police force between the city council and mayor’s office, and highlighted a proposal for a new citizen police oversight commission meant to replace the city’s much-criticized one. In late January, the Albuquerque City Council-appointed Police Oversight Task Force proposed a new, nine-member independent oversight agency with some strengthened powers.
And once again, the deadly encounter between Boyd and APD revisited the long-running issue of interactions between the police department and Albuquerque’s large population of mentally-ill persons, homeless or otherwise.
On the Boyd shooting, the POTF also recommended an independent investigation. But in an op-ed published only two days before Boyd was shot, former POTF member Alan Wagman cautioned that while the recommendations made by commission members last January should be adopted by city councilors, civilian oversight was not a panacea to local policing problems.
“After paying out millions to lawsuit plaintiffs, after police killed one man for pointing a gun at his own head and another for cutting himself with a butter knife, after APD repeatedly finds no wrongdoing, it is obvious that APD officers are either short of training, or that the training they get is the wrong kind, or both,” Wagman contended.
Wagman wrote that residents would be snookered until APD’s chain of command, from the mayor on down, “actually takes it upon itself to change APD…”
Adding more grist to the mill, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, who is expected to launch a gubernatorial bid this year, announced his office would take the “unusual” step of investigating the Boyd and other recent officer-involved shootings.
The deepening turmoil surrounding APD is part and parcel of a series of officer scandals, highly questioned shootings and law enforcement policies that have stirred public opinion and shaken the justice system across the Land of Enchantment.
In recent months, a New Mexico state policeman was fired for shooting at a fleeing van containing children near Taos, while in the southern part of the state near the Mexican border, in Deming, the practice of forced body cavity searches to search for illegal drugs was exposed.
On March 25, Torry Chambers, a guard employed at Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, was indicted for allegedly raping four female inmates between 2008 and 2010. While Bernalillo County has reached settlements with three of the inmates totaling nearly one million dollars, Chambers remains on paid administrative leave.
APD officer Keith Sandy, who is on similar leave after the Boyd shooting, joined the Albuquerque force after he was fired from the New Mexico State Police for alleged double-dipping in 2007, according to news reports.
Sandy later reemerged as a member of APD’s vice unit, and was personally involved in the 2011 arrest of New Mexico District Judge Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch, in a case that jolted the state judicial system.
Now retired from the bench, Murdoch was charged with raping a prostitute and intimidating a witness. The “problematic” case was dropped this month by First Judicial District Attorney Angela Pacheco, who cited flimsy evidence and the possibility that Murdoch had been set up for extortion.
Reportedly, Sandy is among the defendants in a federal lawsuit alleging illegal search and seizure of property belonging to a suspected drug dealer.
Albuquerque’s March 25 protest rally terminated on the steps of police department headquarters, where signs and t-shirts clearly exhibited the eroding public confidence in the local police force.
A few of the messages read: “APD: Another Person Dead.” “Jail Killer Cops” “Iraq Vets Say: It’s Murder,” “Every Time Your Gun Foes Off a New Rebel is Born.” “I Didn’t Use 3 round burst in Iraq. Why does APD?” “Chief Eden is a Gang Leader.”
Noticeably, the police presence outside APD headquarters was very light.
Some speakers linked Boyd’s shooting to larger ills of race and class, comparing the killing to the California police slayings of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton and Oscar Grant in Oakland. A young African-American father, Grant was shot in the head by Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle while he was restrained on the ground early on New Year’s Day 2009.
Touching off sustained public protests, Grant’s murder was the subject of the critically acclaimed 2013 film “Fruitvale Station.” Mehserle was eventually convicted of manslaughter and served a brief jail sentence before he was paroled in 2011.
Given the fed-up mood of the Albuquerque protesters, it remains to be seen if the Boyd killing becomes New Mexico’s Oscar Grant moment.
In an act of guerrilla theater staged from atop APD stairs taken over by protestors, a man who said he represented an ad-hoc group called the “City of Albuquerque Task Force for Public Safety” tossed out “arrest warrants” for Mayor Berry and members of the APD.
The “warrant” charged Berry with accessory for Boyd’s murder, for “knowingly and willfully harboring fugitives from justice at the Albuquerque Police Department since becoming Mayor of Albuquerque,” and for “crimes against humanity” stemming from violent acts and cover-ups.
Two young women, Marissa Chavez, 17, and her 19-year-old sister Amanda Chavez, hoisted a picture of their late brother, Santiago, who was 20 years old when he was killed by APD during a violent confrontation at the family home in southwestern part of Albuquerque in 2012.
“I don’t think (police) handled the situation properly,” Marissa charged. “Santiago wasn’t violent.”
The Chavez sisters and their mother, Rachel Hernandez, told FNS that an altercation between Santiago and a neighbor led to mutual displays of gun-waving, the call-up of the APD, a day-long siege that ended in a barrage of tear gas fired into the family home, and a young man’s death.
Hernandez said she and others close to Santiago were prevented by the police from talking to her son while the confrontation was in progress; incomplete video evidence was later presented by the APD, she said.
Almost two years later, the family home is boarded up and physically uninhabitable because of destruction from the siege while a settlement between the family and the City of Albuquerque is elusive, Hernandez said. “They destroyed our home,” she added.
According to UNM professor and police violence researcher David Correia, SWAT officer Drew Bader engaged Santiago Chavez with gunfire, contradicting an initial police report that Chavez had committed suicide. Bader had been involved in two previous fatal shootings, Correia wrote shortly after the Chavez siege in 2012.
Gauging the protest, Amanda Chavez said she hoped it would make a difference.
“I think now people are realizing that they’re hurting innocent people, and not the lies the news is telling us,” Chavez said.
An older protest participant, Autumn Riddle, said the Boyd shooting prompted her to act on the pervasive violence that keeps women down and infects the ranks of society.
“I came out because I’m in fear of violence in our culture. Now I don’t see any difference between the gangs and the men in uniform,” Riddle said. Suddenly seeing unidentified helicopters twirling overhead, Riddle said the sight made her feel like she was in Serbia or Bosnia.
“I think it is a hopeless city,” was Riddle’s assessment of the current state of the Duke City. “It feels hopeless for the young people and homeless people. We have to give hope to the young people…we’re a culture that keeps everybody controlled by fear, and (Boyd’s shooting) seems like another lesson.”
Ironically, another man was reported shot and killed by APD the same evening as marchers protested the use of deadly force, in an incident whose details are still unclear.
For a look at the APD-recorded shooting of Boyd posted on YouTube:
For videos of the March 25 Albuquerque demonstration:
Additional sources: NBC News, . Kob. Com, . Article by Elizabeth Reed and Johnny Corboba. Lapolaka.com, March 25, 2014. Albuquerque Journal, March 14, 23 and 26, 2014. Articles by Alan Wagman, Patrick Lohmann, Nicole Perez, and Joline Gutierrez. KRQE.com, March 17, 19, 24, 25, 26, 2014. Articles by Jeff Procter, Kate Kim, Matt Grubs, and Chris McKee.