Imagine how hard it would be for you to put on the uniform every day, put your life on the line and deal with the pressure cooker of keeping the peace with the nagging question of whether or not a prosecutor will eventually try to find you criminally liable for an action you took in the line of duty. Imagine how that affects you, your family, your coworkers – and will continue to until it’s resolved.
Imagine how that uncertainty affects police morale, and how it affects potential recruits. And imagine what those unresolved cases do for Metro area residents’ confidence in their local law enforcement.
Welcome to the 2nd Judicial District.
Because former District Attorney Kari Brandenburg failed to decide whether to prosecute dozens of cases in which police shot suspects, DA Raúl Torrez inherited 26 such cases. Since he took office in January, he hired two retired prosecutors to work on this backlog of police-involved shooting reviews, and the office has been able to clear four – including the decision to not retry two former APD officers who fatally shot illegal camper James Boyd in March 2014. But new shootings mean there are now 33 cases where police have finished their investigations and decisions whether to prosecute are pending.
Earlier this year Torrez wrote in an op-ed that state underfunding of his office means “we lack both the personnel and the basic resources necessary to provide adequate justice to the citizens of this community.”
Those citizens include our law enforcement officers.
And while Torrez has spent his first eight months in office targeting the dollars he does receive so they achieve the greatest bang for the buck – focusing on prosecuting the “worst of the worst” criminals in the district in an effort to lower the city’s burgeoning crime rate – it’s simply not enough. The community needs bad cops to be held accountable and good cops cleared so they can protect and serve free from any cloud of wrongdoing.
And that’s where the New Mexico Legislature, which holds the purse strings, comes in.
Torrez said last week that resource limitations have prevented him from fully staffing the police shooting investigative team. “We are in the process of using vacancy savings within the agency to hire additional special prosecutors in order to address the historical backlog as well as keep pace with the influx of new cases. However, the impact of rising violent and property crime means that the office has had less contract money available to conduct independent evaluations of officer-involved shooting cases.”
One local police union official says police unions around the country are shocked when they hear it can take years before Albuquerque prosecutors announce a decision on whether to charge an officer. APD officer Simon Drobik, who was cleared this spring in the shooting death of a suspect who shot four police officers during a rampage in October 2013, said waiting years for a resolution was difficult, and “I had pretty much a black-and-white situation. There are more complicated officer-involved shootings, and the turmoil that these guys go through when it’s hanging over their head. They’ve been trained well. They’ve been asked to do a job, and they do the job, and they go back to work, and now they’re waiting around for a decision from people who are not under stress and can look at the totality of everything. And it takes years? That’s a joke.”
It is – and there’s nothing funny about it. This is an untenable situation for law enforcement, the DA’s Office and Metro-area residents. Torrez, APD Chief Gorden Eden and the courts are working together to develop a comprehensive plan to address this serious spike in crime.
It’s the state Legislature’s turn to do the same.
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.