For the first time in decades, instead of relying on 12 residents who are given one-sided instructions and lack the power to indict, Bernalillo County will have an elected office responsible for determining whether police shootings are justified.
It is what most district attorneys in New Mexico and around the country do. It is what state District Court judges have demanded. And it is what District Attorney Kari Brandenburg has resisted.
In the 25 years the so-called investigative grand jury system has been in place in Bernalillo County, the 12 citizens Brandenburg lauds as not having “a dog in the fight” have found every single police shooting case they have reviewed justified under New Mexico law. Even in cases where the city later shells out huge settlements — often as dictated by a different group of 12 citizens that has had a more robust presentation of the facts.
It bears mentioning that the old system cleared the detective who shot and killed Iraq War veteran Kenneth Ellis III, whose family was just awarded a $10.3 million jury verdict. A judge had also determined the shooting was unlawful.
However, the “all clear” result may not change under the new system — Brandenburg says just one officer shooting in 500 nationwide results in criminal charges. But there’s hope the public’s faith in the process will change.
Under the new system, the DA’s Office will respond to the scene, investigate, hear from the victim’s relatives and determine if there is probable cause a crime was committed. If it does, it will send the information to a real grand jury for possible indictment, not to a group of jurors that is only given the various justifications for an officer to shoot, not one that has no authority to file charges, not one that is considered an expedient way to deflect tough decisions the DA is supposed to make about the police department.
Another plus: Brandenburg says “our goal is to give as much (information) as possible” by posting online the “findings letter” to the police chief, investigative reports, exhibits, the officer’s statement and other case documents. She says reviews should be complete within six months — a significant change considering she has said it now takes more than a year and that she has 16 or 17 pending cases she plans to resolve by July 1.
This new system is an important component to restoring faith in Brandenburg’s office and in a police department under the cloud of a federal civil-rights investigation.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.