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DA rules two APD shootings as ‘justified’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s office has ruled two more shootings by Albuquerque police officers as “justified.”

Both involved men were living with different forms of mental illness and were holding knives when they were shot.

Chandler Barr and Russell Tenorio were seriously injured but survived the separate shootings in 2010. Barr and Tenorio are suing APD in federal court for civil rights violations.

The police officers, Leah Kelly and Brian Pitzer, are still with APD. The shootings were cleared through APD’s Internal Affairs process and by the Police Oversight Commission. Neither officer was disciplined.

Prosecutors in Brandenburg’s office announced through the release of numerous documents on Friday that no criminal charges will be pursued against either officer.

That’s the same conclusion the four-term DA and her chief deputies have reached in eight internal reviews of police shootings since March.

And it’s the same conclusion Brandenburg and all her predecessors dating back to the 1980s have reached under county prosecutors’ previous system of presenting cases to special “investigative grand juries” – a practice that state District Court judges ordered Brandenburg to halt last year over concerns that the system lacked impartiality and legal justification.

The new system of internal reviews allows those shot by police, or their representatives, to weigh in.

Attorney Cammie Nichols, who is representing Barr in his civil rights lawsuit, did so by writing a letter to Chief Deputy DA Mark Drebing on Wednesday. (Read the letter)

The letter suggested that, although Supreme Court case law allows leeway for police to use deadly force, the reviews by Bernalillo County prosecutors go too far and create a different legal system for law enforcement.

” … Merely because a man stood in an area roughly 15 feet from a police officer with a shiny metal object in his hand, and may have turned toward or moved toward that officer, that officer is not necessarily justified in making the decision to shoot that individual,” Nichols wrote.

She wrote that the prosecutors’ review “assumes (Kelly’s) account is credible. Ordinary people are not privileged with this presumption when facing a potential criminal charge. It is hard to see how any officer-involved shooting will ever lead to a criminal prosecution of the officer involved, if their account of the events, or of what he or she perceived to be the events, is automatically considered credible.”

APD officers have shot 25 men since 2010, killing 18. The shootings and other use of force incidents have led to a U.S. Justice Department investigation of APD. Federal investigators aim to determine whether APD’s culture leads officers to use excessive force. Also, there are multiple federal criminal investigations that involve APD, although officials have declined to provide specifics of those.

Kelly shot Barr on Sept. 14, 2010 at Second Street and Central Avenue around 8:15 a.m., according to court documents.

Three days earlier, Barr had called APD from the Greyhound bus station Downtown to say he was suicidal and needed help, court records state. Medical personnel who responded took Barr to the UNM Psychiatric Center, where he stayed for three days.

Upon his release, court records say, he went back to the bus station and argued with an employee about the cost of changing his bus ticket. The employee called police to say Barr was cutting himself with a knife.

Kelly and APD officer Jennifer Yara were among those dispatched. They encountered Barr, who suffers from bipolar disorder and major depression disorder, walking around Downtown cutting his arm with a round-tipped knife, court records state.

With her gun pointed at Barr, Kelly yelled at him to drop the knife. He walked “slowly” toward her, looking “confused” and “dazed,” court records state. That’s when Kelly shot him twice.

Barr underwent two surgeries and spent 31 days at UNM Hospital, court records say. Afterward, he was booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center on a charge of aggravated assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon. He was later transferred to a mental health facility in his native Oklahoma.

Brandenburg’s office indicted Barr on the charge, which was later dismissed by a state District Court judge.

On Nov. 11, 2010, Hilda Valdez called 911, hoping Albuquerque police officers could help calm down her mentally disabled brother-in-law, who had been drinking and was threatening to harm himself with a knife.

Pitzer and another officer entered the home with their firearms drawn. A third officer was carrying a Taser and a fourth was carrying a bean-bag shotgun. Pitzer shot Tenorio, who survived but lost a kidney and part of his intestines. Upon being released from the hospital, he was arrested on various charges, including assault on a police officer. Those charges were later dismissed.

Valdez, who called for help, and two more family members were detained for hours in the back of squad cars, and their requests to use the bathroom and for an inhaler were denied.

Pitzer later said the confrontation in the home was the most fearful moment of his career, according to court records. He said Tenorio was walking toward him, with a blank look on his face, carrying a knife and ignoring commands to drop it.

Attorneys for Tenorio, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, have said events unfolded so quickly that he didn’t comprehend, or have time to comply with, officers’ shouted, conflicting commands.

Valdez and the other two family members who witnessed the shooting sued the city in federal court for civil rights violations including unlawful detention. Without admitting liability, the city settled the case for $275,000.