Boyd’s death conformed to many of the patterns governing deadly police violence in Albuquerque. Living with mental illness, Boyd fit the profile of the marginal Albuquerqueans most likely to find themselves shot to death by the city’s police. The escalation of a low-level encounter to a standoff involving numerous heavily armed officers wasn’t anything new, either. Few were surprised when footage from the lapel camera that Officer Sandy was required to keep running was inexplicably absent. And, as in so many previous officer-involved shootings, Boyd’s death was followed by a press conference by the chief of police, who declared the shooting justified and painted Boyd as a dangerous criminal.
But Boyd’s case was different. While Officer Sandy’s camera didn’t produce any video, the helmet-mounted camera of the other shooter, Officer Perez, captured the whole awful sequence of Boyd’s death. When the video was released, more than 1,000 citizens rose up in protest unlike anything the city had seen in generations. Police used tear gas against demonstrators and sent out plainclothes officers to collect surveillance footage, further enraging the protesters.
Then this year, on January 12th, Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg made the announcement that her office was pursuing murder charges against officers Perez and Sandy for the death of James Boyd. (Lawyers for both said they intend to fight the charges. Sandy’s lawyer, Sam Bregman, said in a statement, “Keith did nothing wrong. To the contrary, he followed his training and probably saved his fellow officer’s life.”)
In the past five years, the police department of Albuquerque, a city of just 550,000, has managed to kill 28 people — a per-capita kill rate nearly double that of the Chicago police and eight times that of the NYPD. Until now, not one of the officers in those 28 killings had been charged with any crime.
Albuquerque is hardly an outlier when it comes to police impunity. Brandenburg’s announcement resonated far beyond New Mexico, as the pendulum seems to be swinging against police departments’ use of violence to enforce the law. The U.S. Justice Department in the past five years has launched 22 investigations into civil rights violations by police departments — more than twice the number it had begun in the previous five years. Surprisingly, there are no reliable national statistics on the hundreds of fatal police shootings each year, or how many officers have been charged and convicted for such killings. “My guess is that the number of criminal convictions of officers each year would be on the fingers of one hand,” says Franklin Zimring, the William G. Simon Professor of Law at UC Berkeley.
Last August, the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered an outright crisis in this country’s relationship with its police. When it was announced in November that there would be no indictment in Brown’s killing, and then, a week later, that there also wouldn’t be one in the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, protests erupted in every major city in the country.