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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The March 16 police shooting death of a mentally ill, homeless man in the Sandia foothills has galvanized protesters, provoked a cyber attack and served as a rallying cry for Albuquerque residents and those around the globe who see the shooting as an example of police brutality and unchecked excessive force.

But James Boyd’s death is just the latest chapter in a series of events that ultimately prompted a sweeping federal investigation into APD and eroded community confidence in the police department. Boyd’s case isn’t part of the civil investigation that concluded this week, but it has been referred to the Justice Department’s criminal division.

In the past four years, APD has shot at 37 men and killed 23, is now on its third police chief and has shelled out tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in civil lawsuits. Along the way, the district attorney was pressured into overhauling how that office investigates police shootings, and the police department has instituted a number of reforms.

Neither of the institutions whose mission is to hold officers accountable – including the District Attorney’s Office and the civilian Police Oversight Commission – has ruled any of the shootings since 2010 unjustified. Also, APD’s Internal Affairs Unit has never made public any findings of officer wrongdoing in connection with the shootings.

Today, after a year and a half of waiting, Albuquerque will learn the findings of the Department of Justice investigation into the way APD trains and hires its officers, the policies and procedures that shape the way officers use deadly force, and the way the department polices itself.

Earlier shootings

Not quite two months into Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s first term, on a Wednesday morning in the Northeast Heights, Kenneth Ellis III paced slowly in front of a 7-Eleven gas station and stared down the barrels of guns wielded by police officers.

He gripped a pistol tight against his temple and finished a phone call to his mother. Minutes later, he was dead, shot in the neck below his left ear. Officer Brett Lampiris-Tremba said during two statements to investigators – one immediately after the incident, and one nine months later – that he fired the fatal shot after Ellis had made a “twitch,” but he later said, during a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Ellis’ family, that Ellis had taken a step toward another officer.

The shooting death of Ellis, which ultimately cost the city a $7.6 million settlement reached in January, was among the first of a string of shootings in 2010 that brought media and community scrutiny to APD’s use of force, training, oversight, culture and leadership.

The protests initially were small, peopled by community activists and family members of the men shot by police. They asked for increased training for officers in the areas of de-escalation, an outside investigation and for the resignation of then-APD Chief Ray Schultz.

In 2010, officers shot 14 men, killing nine of them. Berry has since pointed to a decrease in shootings the next couple years as proof that reforms the city adopted at that time are working.

However, while the number of shootings dropped, 2011 and 2012 included several of the most high-profile and controversial shootings, many of them fatal, of mentally ill and unarmed suspects.

Among the men shot by police since 2010 are at least five who had been diagnosed with mental issues including fetal-alcohol syndrome, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to the police shootings, APD has faced criticism for other alleged excessive force cases, including that of officers John Doyle and Robert Woolever. Hotel surveillance video captured Woolever tackling auto-theft suspect Nicholas Blume in a basement parking garage before Doyle was seen kicking Blume repeatedly while Woolever was on top of him. Doyle’s attorney has said the kicks were to distract Blume as Woolever secured Blume’s hands.

Both officers were fired but have appealed to get their jobs back.

Also, in May 2012, officer Connor Rice jumped onto the back of a suspect who had fled a Northeast Heights apartment and hit him with either his hand or fist several times while a fellow officer pinned the suspect’s face to the ground with his boot.

When the suspect screamed, “I surrender,” Rice said, “Oh, you surrender, huh?” He then struck him several times, according to a police video.

Rice was fired in May 2013 and faced battery charges in state court. A jury found him not guilty in September 2013.

Other problems

While the DOJ has said it is looking into the department’s use of force, it has stressed that its primary concern is to determine whether APD has a culture that promotes the systematic violation of constitutional rights by officers.

Apart from police shootings and alleged excessive force cases, APD officers and units have also come under fire several times for attitudes and symbols that critics say show the department’s disregard for the people it serves.

  • Within days of shooting Jacob Mitschelen, it was reported that officer Trey Economidy had listed his job as “human waste disposal” on his personal Facebook page.

The description was taken down, but Economidy was disciplined for the comment and APD later developed a new social media policy for its officers.

  • In June 2012, an internal APD wanted poster was made public in a district court case that revealed the department’s Repeat Offender Project team had used a hangman’s noose as its symbol. The icon was criticized by civil rights attorneys as promoting violence and as another signal that APD was out of control.

After Journal inquiries, Schultz ordered that the symbol be removed from all APD documents.

  • In May 2012, the Journal revealed a union practice of giving officers involved in shootings either $300 or $500. Union officials said the money was to allow officers and their families a way to get out of town to decompress after a stressful incident. However, the father of one man shot by police blasted the practice as a “bounty.” The practice ended soon after.

Schultz maintained throughout that APD had an image problem – not a cultural one – and he pointed to a series of changes in policies and procedures aimed at addressing concerns over the spike in police shootings.

Since May 2011, APD made more than 60 changes. About 40 of those came after the city paid the Police Executive Research Forum, a national law enforcement think tank of which Schultz was a prominent member, $60,000 to review its use-of-force policies.

And Schultz himself also ordered nearly 20 more changes to department policies.

Among the changes:

  • All officers are required to carry Tasers, in addition to their firearms, and record all citizen contacts on lapel-mounted cameras.
  • APD reinstituted previously discarded hiring standards – including a requirement of 60 college credit hours or two years’ military experience – to try to hire “good problem solvers and decision makers.”
  • The department hired a civilian director of training, Joe Wolf, in June 2012 who has said he is moving the APD Academy away from the paramilitary methods of the past and toward a college campus environment.
  • In early 2013, the “Real Time Crime Center,” went live and is designed to give officers as much information as possible about a suspect’s history before officers encounter him or her, including a suspect’s potential history of mental illness.

In recent weeks, Berry has pointed to these reforms as contributing to a reduction in officer-involved shootings in 2011 and 2012. He also pointed out that the department was on track to have a year of far-below-average police shootings in 2013 until late October, when suspect Christopher Chase led police on a 16-mile, high-speed chase throughout the city.

Armed with an assault rifle and dressed in body armor, Chase stole an APD cruiser and fired at officers. He shot four officers, including sheriff’s Deputy Robin Hopkins who was seriously wounded, before being shot by police multiple times just after crumpling the cruiser at a gas station at Fourth and Montaño.

Within six weeks of the Chase event, police were involved in four officer-involved shootings.

More scrutiny

The number of police shootings has increased public scrutiny on agencies whose mission it is to review police use of force.

The District Attorney’s Office’s former process of reviewing police shootings prompted criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, attorneys and district court judges, who ultimately halted the process, after a series of Journal stories highlighted details of the system.

Under the DA’s old system, police shootings were sent to special grand juries. Those jurors were provided instructions on different versions of justified shootings but not on criminal statutes; prosecutors met with officers to review testimony, often without the officers’ attorney present, prior to grand jurors hearing the case; and prosecutors often asked leading questions of officers in the grand jury room, such as, “Were you afraid?” when asking why they shot someone.

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg defended the system as impartial and thorough, and she said it is extremely rare for an officer to be charged criminally. Not one of the shootings that went before the DA’s “investigative grand juries” was ever ruled as unjustified to prompt the case going to trial.

Brandenburg ultimately abandoned the special grand jury process after the district court insisted that she cite specific authority authorizing the unusual proceedings. Under the new process, Brandenburg’s office determines whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed, and, if so, send it to a target grand jury, which has the power to indict the officer or officers involved. The new process also allows families of people shot to submit a 1,500-word letter for the DA’s consideration.

Probable cause has not been found in any case so far.

Another institution that passes judgment on officer-involved shootings also is undergoing a massive overhaul.

The Police Oversight Commission is a civilian body that reviews police shootings and complaints against police officers. After being criticized as ineffective by city councilors and community members, a task force was created to recommend changes to overhaul it. The City Council will soon consider those recommendations, which include a new police oversight agency with more independence, more authority and its own source of funding and staff.

The POC has also never ruled a police shooting unjustified. It came closest in April 2011 when then-Independent Review Officer William Deaton presented his findings to the commission about the Kenneth Ellis shooting, which he said was not justified.

The POC overruled him. A grand jury ruled it justified in December 2010.

  • Detective Trey Economidy shot 29-year-old Jacob Mitschelen twice in the back and once in the buttocks after Mitschelen pointed a weapon at the officer during a foot chase after a traffic stop in southeast Albuquerque.

In January 2014, the city of Albuquerque agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a federal civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit brought by Mitschelen’s family, more than a year after District Attorney Kari Brandenburg ruled the shooting justified.

  • Detective Christopher J. Brown shot and killed 27-year-old Christopher Torres with three shots into Torres’ back at close range after Torres grabbed a detective’s pistol during a struggle that ensued when officers attempted to serve Torres with a warrant.

Torres, the son of Bernalillo County Deputy Manager Renetta Torres, was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. A wrongful death lawsuit is pending against the city. DA Kari Brandenburg recently declined to prosecute the officers but blasted investigators for not interviewing the shooting’s only eyewitness until more than a year later.

  • Alan Gomez, 22, was unarmed when he was shot and killed from across a street by officer Sean Wallace after the girlfriend of Gomez’s brother called police and said Gomez wasn’t letting the couple leave her house. Gomez’s father, Michael Gomez, has become an outspoken critic of APD’s use of force and frequently speaks at City Council meetings.

In May 2013, the District Attorney’s Office cleared Wallace of any wrongdoing in the shooting, but in December of the same year, the city agreed to a $900,000 settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Alan Gomez’s family.