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Outside investigator to review APD video allegations

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — City Attorney Jessica Hernandez said the city plans to hire an independent investigator to look into allegations that Albuquerque police tampered with officers’ lapel camera videos to conceal damaging information from the public.

The priority, she said, is “to determine whether original video evidence has been properly preserved and maintained” and to confirm that prosecutors have had access to the original video during their work.

The statement regarding an independent investigation comes a day after Hernandez and Police Chief Gorden Eden said APD was investigating the allegations, which surfaced in connection with plea bargain negotiations in the case of two former APD officers charged in the shooting death of homeless camper James Boyd.

City Attorney Jessica Hernandez

City Attorney Jessica Hernandez

Hernandez made the announcement Tuesday after City Councilor Pat Davis, a former police officer, pushed for an independent investigator. The appointment of outside counsel, he said, would avoid potential conflicts of interest and boost public confidence in the review.

The “special nature of these allegations requires that there be no opportunity for the outcome of the investigation to be questioned,” Davis said Tuesday in a letter to Hernandez.

Hernandez said she agrees an independent investigation is appropriate and is taking steps to launch one.

“We will cooperate with the independent investigator to complete a thorough investigation as promptly as possible,” she said in a written statement.

The city also will “cooperate with any other official investigation into these issues,” Hernandez said.

The allegations of altered video are spelled out in an affidavit by APD’s former records custodian, Reynaldo Chavez.

Chavez said in the sworn affidavit – filed in a civil rights lawsuit by the family of a teenager shot by police – that he could tell that video in at least two police shootings had been tampered with. In each case, officers had shot a civilian.

In general, Chavez said, “video would be altered or corrupted if it was damaging to the police department.”

Mayor Richard Berry’s administration has pointed out that Chavez was fired last year and is now suing the city.

“There has not been any evidence so far to substantiate these allegations,” Hernandez told city councilors Monday, though she noted the matter was still under investigation.

She and Eden assured councilors Monday that the original footage taken by officers’ body-worn cameras is retained by the record-keeping system. The computer system tracks all changes made in copies of the video, creating an audit trail that can be checked any time, Hernandez said.

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, meanwhile, has notified federal prosecutors about the allegations of doctored APD video.

And special prosecutor Randi McGinn said in a letter to lawyers for retired Detective Keith Sandy and former SWAT officer Dominique Perez – who were charged in the shooting death of Boyd, the homeless camper – that there were disturbing allegations of doctored video that would be pursued if there is a retrial. A jury deadlocked 9-3 for acquittal last month after a 12-day trial.

Hernandez and Eden, meanwhile, said they planned to get in touch with the U.S. Attorney’s Office this week.

It was unclear whether federal authorities are investigating.

“As a general matter, the Justice Department takes seriously all referrals from state and local prosecutorial authorities,” said Elizabeth Martinez, an executive assistant U.S. attorney and spokeswoman for the New Mexico-based office.

But it’s federal policy to avoid commenting on referrals, she said.

The allegation of video tampering comes at a critical time for APD. A federal investigation in 2014 found that Albuquerque police had a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force and the city is now carrying out a series of reforms required by a settlement agreement.

Civilian board

The board that provides civilian oversight of APD as part of the agreement with the Department of Justice also weighed in.

Joanne Fine, a member of the Police Oversight Board, said the group plans to call a special meeting next week to consider how to respond to the allegations of altered video. The board uses video evidence when considering complaints filed against officers.

“Investigation by APD of its own potential criminal activity is unacceptable in the extreme,” Fine said.