At least professionally, the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office has already paid for filing murder charges against two cops who shot and killed a homeless man in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Just a day after DA Kari Brandenburg announced for the first time in recent memory that she would pursue criminal charges against cops for an on-duty deadly shooting, there was another police shooting in the city, which has seen a spate of fatal police shootings since 2010 at eight times the rate of New York City.
And when a prosecutor from Brandenburg’s office went to the scene and sought to attend an investigative briefing, as prosecutors had been doing for years as part of their collection of evidence, police wouldn’t let her in. They claimed that now that the DA’s office had filed criminal charges against a cop, they had a “conflict of interest” and should be excluded.
“Clearly, this could compromise the integrity of the investigation of this shooting,” an outraged Brandenburg told KRQE of the police department’s behavior.
But this isn’t the only way Brandenburg may have paid for her decision to file murder charges. Buried deep in an expansive New Yorker report on Albuquerque’s investigation of police shootings, reporter Rachel Aviv lays out how Brandenburg may have faced other personal pressures aimed at intimidating her out of using her enforcement powers.
As the nation grapples to figure out why cops are so rarely punished for using deadly force, the story of Albuquerque is a window into what can happen when local officials do try to punish their own police for perceived wrongdoing.
Last October, Brandenburg told an attorney for the police union that she was considering filing charges against the cops who killed James Boyd, a homeless schizophrenic man approached by the officers for sleeping in the Albuquerque foothills. “Within weeks, Brandenburg found herself the target of an investigation by the Albuquerque Police Department,” Aviv explains.
The investigation related to theft by Brandenburg’s son, who had stolen money from friends to feed his heroin addiction. Brandenburg had offered to pay back the victims of the theft, and somewhere along the way, police developed a claim that Brandenburg had bribed witnesses related to the case.
A detective working on the case admitted in a recording that the claims were “super-weak — it’s probably not gonna go anywhere,” but “it’s gonna destroy her career.” Aviv writes:
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.”
On January 12th, Brandenburg filed counts of murder against the two officers who shot Boyd. The case will now go before a district judge, who will determine if there is probable cause to send the officers to trial. At a press conference announcing the charges, Brandenburg said, “I am not going to be intimidated.”
Despite this perceived intimidation, Brandenburg has some reason to feel more empowered than most prosecutors most of the time who are mulling filing charges against their own police departments. Albuquerque has faced a rash of police shootings that has garnered national attention. The 37 police shootings that have rocked the small city since 2010 engendered a 10-hour protest months before events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri. The cops involved in many of these shootings were hardly punished at all, with officers in some cases merely suspended for three days. And in the wake of all of this, a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report found rampant constitutional violations in police use of force.
The city is now in the final stages of entering into an agreement with the Justice Department to improve some of its police practices. And part of what will become a court-enforceable agreement if approved by a judge is a mandate that “charges be filed against a shooting officer if they are warranted,” according to KRQE’s Jeff Proctor.
Nonetheless, while in most cities like Ferguson it has been the community members who have called for a special prosecutor to investigate police shootings to avoid the bias of working with police on a regular basis, it is now the local police in Albuquerque who are asking for a special prosecutor to replace Brandenburg. And they only started asking after she filed charges against a police officer for the very first time.
“Given recent incidents,” Chief Administrative Officer Robert Perry wrote in a letter to Brandenburg, “it is imperative the Community have confidence in the Police Department, prosecution, and justice system.”