Two officers will be charged with murder in Albuquerque over the March 2014 fatal shooting of a homeless man, the district attorney announced this week. The charges come in a city that has seen a spate of police killings far disproportionate to its size, and a finding by the Department of Justice that the majority of a spate of police killings violated the U.S. Constitution.
In the killing at issue here, police fired on a homeless, mentally disturbed man who appeared to be surrendering at the time. Officers first approached 38-year-old James Boyd while he was sleeping in the Albuquerque foothills to talk to him about illegally camping. Video of the incident appears to show that he had agreed to walk down the mountain with officers, when one of them fired a flashbang device that disoriented him, and deployed a police dog. Boyd then pulled out two knives and started to run away from police, appearing at one point to tell officers he was agent for the Department of Defense, when the shots were fired.
The police department initially said the shooting was “justified,” but later conceded under public pressure that may have been a mistake. The 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.
In a demonstration of outrage, the city erupted in protest for 10 hours in late March, escalating into what Mayor Richard Berry called “mayhem” as officers clashed with protesters, donning riot gear and deploying tear gas.
In retrospect, the images coming out of that protest provided a foreboding preview of clashes to come in Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere, where grand juries ultimately did not file any charges against the officers who killed unarmed victims and illuminated the epidemic failure to hold police accountable for what many perceive as brutality. But this week, the narrative changed course in New Mexico. Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg did not take the case before a grand jury. And she did not find the use of deadly force “justified.” Instead, she will charge two officers with the highest possible charge of first-degree murder, according to the New Mexico Political Report.
A contributing factor may be the role of the federal government in the city. While a federal investigation of the Boyd incident has not yet yielded any civil rights charges, the federal government did exercise its other power to curb police brutality via a citywide investigation of police brutality. The so-called “pattern and practice” investigations that the Justice Department has deployed in some 20 cities over the past five years may have had some of the most sweeping impact in curbing police brutality under Attorney General Eric Holder.
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.
While filing charges is not among the changes mandated in the agreement with the Justice Department, it may have influenced the culture and attitudes of government officials, as the report found that a select number of officers were responsible for a disproportionate number of violent incidents, and that those individuals were not punished or corrected in any way after their actions.