District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said Friday that she has contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office about allegations in a recent court filing that the Albuquerque Police Department erased, corrupted and altered police lapel camera video in two fatal police shootings of citizens since 2014.
The possibility of doctored APD videos was first raised in a confidential plea bargain letter this month from special prosecutor Randi McGinn to lawyers for former APD officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez.
But Brandenburg, who was disqualified from that prosecution, said she learned of the allegations from a nine-page affidavit by a former APD records custodian who contends he was privy to audit reports showing that “people” at the police department had “in fact deleted and/or altered lapel camera video.”
Former records custodian Reynaldo Chavez’s affidavit says that APD since 2013 has permitted training of certain police units and command staff on how to edit such video, “meaning you could delete video and add images and blur video and/or corrupt the videos so that they were either not usable or altered.”
The city’s motivation was “twofold,” the affidavit says. ” The city wanted to appear to be following Chief (Gorden) Eden’s edict to record all encounters with civilians on the one hand, while, at the same time, preventing any damaging recordings from reaching the public.”
Chavez was the supervisor of the APD records unit until his firing in August 2015.
Eden said he was unaware of the allegations in the court filing until recently.
“I am completely unaware of it,” he said. “Nor have I ever been told of anybody tampering with any video.”
The affidavit says APD’s repository system, Evidence.com, has the ability to redact, alter and blur portions of videotapes documenting police interactions in the community and at crime scenes. An administrative reference guide for the system is publicly available on the internet.
“We were able to build cases on Evidence.com. We were able to alter videos by inserting or blurring images on the videos or by removing images from the video,” Chavez said in the affidavit, dated Oct. 28.
Chavez said that he learned that officers in specialized units, those working the graveyard shift or those involved in officer shootings, were instructed not to write their reports until their videos had been reviewed.
“If their videos did not contain images harmful to the Department, then the officers could indicate (in their report) that they had recorded a given incident,” the affidavit says.
“If videos contained images that were ‘problematic’ for the Department, the officer was instructed not to mention that there was a recording in the report and/or state that the recording equipment had malfunctioned or that the officer had failed to engage the recorder,” the affidavit says.
City officials say there can be legitimate reasons, such as privacy issues, for redacting videos before their public release.
But Brandenburg, whose term as district attorney ends Dec. 31, said she is taking the allegations seriously.
“I felt like I needed to alert (federal law enforcement). In the meantime, I’ve gotten various documents,” Brandenburg said, adding that she is planning to forward the materials on Monday to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “This is critical. Now that I have everything, I will contact them again. I don’t know what will happen after that.”
Brandenburg added that she also hopes to meet with Eden about the allegations. “Although they are alerted to it as of now,” she said, “we have not had a chance to sit down and talk about it.”
Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to a Journal request for comment about the affidavit. An APD spokesman told the Journal earlier this week that it wasn’t possible to alter lapel camera videos.
Whistle-blower filed suit
Chavez filed a whistle-blower lawsuit earlier this year alleging retaliation and breach of contract. He was fired after allegations of misconduct arose involving work-related verbal and physical abuse – charges he denies.
His affidavit was filed as an exhibit Thursday in the ongoing civil rights lawsuit filed against the APD by the family of 19-year-old Mary Hawkes, who was killed on April 21, 2014, by APD Officer Jeremy Dear.
Dear, who said he fired when Hawkes produced a gun, contends that his video camera became unplugged during a pursuit of Hawkes, so no video was produced.
But Chavez’s affidavit says that lapel camera video from three other officers at the scene had been altered via Evidence.com to include “changing the gradient of the resolution on the video.” In one of the three videos, “I can see as much as the first twenty seconds … has been deleted.”
After the fatal police shooting of Jeremy Robertson in July 2014, Chavez said, he reviewed a surveillance video taken from a nearby salon “that has the tell-tale signs that it has been altered and the images that had been captured are now deleted. One of the deleted images captured the officers shooting Robertson.” Robertson had been fleeing from police.
In McGinn’s prosecution of Sandy, a now retired detective, and former SWAT officer Perez for the shooting death of homeless camper James Boyd, the department has said there was no video from Sandy’s lapel camera even though he said he had turned it on. The shooting was recorded on Perez’s helmet camera.
Jurors deadlocked 9-3 for acquittal after a trial, and the defense rejected a “package deal” in which Sandy would plead guilty to a fourth-degree felony, while charges against Perez would be dropped. It will be up to the incoming district attorney, Raul Torrez, to decide whether to retry the men.
Matthew Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told the Journal on Friday that the implications of the affidavit are “troubling.”
“Obviously, in police shooting cases, with civil liability, that’s one context where this plays out, but the everyday criminal prosecution of people if there’s an ability to alter the video without defense lawyers knowing about it, that’s a real problem for obvious reasons. That presents serious constitutional problems in the prosecution of everyday cases.
“The real troubling thing is that this was ordered by senior staff. Any system is only as good as the honesty of the people who are involved in it. If senior members of staff have done that, it’s an enormous problem for our community.”
Across the country, police agencies like the APD are increasingly relying on police body cameras to document interactions with the community and record crime scenes. Police use of body camera technology is touted as a way to reduce civilian complaints against police agencies.