ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was about time the District Attorney’s Office abandoned the “charade” of taking police shooting cases to “investigative grand juries,” says one longtime defense attorney.
He was not alone.
Reaction to the news that District Attorney Kari Brandenburg agreed to indefinitely suspend the investigative grand juries’ role in police shooting cases was, for the most part, positive Friday — aside from the Albuquerque police union.
“We really don’t see much wrong with the present system,” said Shaun Willoughby, vice president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association. “But if a new system is implemented, we want to have our say in what it is.”
Brandenburg confirmed Thursday that she had suspended the practice after discussions with 2nd Judicial District Chief Judge Ted Baca.
City Councilors, plaintiffs’ lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union said suspending the practice, which was roundly criticized after the Journal published an in-depth look at it last month, is a step in the right direction, especially in light of a spike in police shootings in recent years.
“Well, it’s good to see that Ms. Brandenburg is going to abandon the charade,” said Ray Twohig, longtime Albuquerque criminal defense and plaintiffs’ lawyer. “But it seems like a pretty simple process from here: investigate (potentially criminal police shootings) like you would any other crime, and prosecute them like you would any other crime.”
The process for police shootings, which began in the late 1980s, doesn’t give the “investigative” grand jurors the power to indict, but instead simply asks them to decide whether the shooting was justified. All police shootings have been ruled as justified.
Critics said the true nature of the grand jury presentments was largely unknown in the community, even among longtime criminal justice system participants and observers.
The Albuquerque Police Department has been hit by a barrage of criticism lately due in large part to a spike in police shootings — 24 since 2010, 17 of which have been fatal. Some critics have called for Police Chief Ray Schultz to step down and are seeking a Department of Justice civil rights investigation of the officer-involved shootings.
City Councilors Rey Garduño, Debbie O’Malley and Ken Sanchez, all Democrats, and Republican Councilor Dan Lewis have been the most outspoken about police leadership and allegations of police misconduct.
Lewis said Friday that DAs and police officials since the 1980s share the blame for a “critical breakdown in enforcing the law fairly and equally.”
“For years, many citizens have wondered why ‘the system’ hasn’t seemed to be working when it came to evaluating the legality of police conduct in Albuquerque,” Lewis said in a text message.
Neither Schultz nor Brandenburg “rose up to explain the truth behind why no officers were ever indicted for so many police killings,” Lewis wrote. “If the DA and chief didn’t know about this double standard, it speaks to their competence. If either knew about it and did nothing, it speaks to their integrity.”
Lewis, Garduño and Sanchez all agreed that if an in-house review at the DA’s Office reveals cases that are “questionable,” those cases should be sent to a traditional grand jury for possible indictment.
Schultz suggested in an email Friday that a one-size-fits-all approach might not be best.
The DA’s staff, possibly with help from a “panel of experts,” should review each case, then determine whether it should go to an investigative grand jury, a target grand jury or a preliminary court hearing, the chief said.
The investigative grand jury process in Albuquerque differs from most jurisdictions in New Mexico and nationwide, where the DA decides whether probable cause exists that an officer has committed a crime. If so, the case is taken to a traditional grand jury for possible indictment.
Brandenburg has said she plans to convene a meeting of various interested parties to begin discussing alternatives. The DA’s Office has nine police shooting cases in its pipeline.
Councilor Sanchez, police union Vice President Willoughby and Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, all expressed interest in participating.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal