On March 16th, 2014, the Albuquerque Police Department fatally shot James Boyd, 38, in the back. He was the 26th person APD has shot and killed in the last four years. Though the city has been ordered to pay large sums in at least one wrongful death law suit, the District Attorney, Kari Brandenburg, has cleared every officer involved in a fatal shooting over that time span of wrongdoing. It remains to be seen what will happen in the Boyd case as the event was captured clearly on video and the medical examiner ruled Mr. Boyd’s death a homicide. As of right now, there still aren’t any charges filed. In any case, there is a very loud question that seems to coming out of Albuquerque: “What the devil is going there?”
It’s a question that has been gaining traction outside of Albuquerque. Having lived in El Paso for the past few months, there is obviously concern about the lack of police efficacy in Juárez. Oddly enough, another point of reference that came up in my conversations with various El Pasoans was Albuquerque. Folks would talk about how bad things are there not only in terms of violence but also in terms of police aggression. Now with CNN, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera covering the story, the coverage has gone national and international.
That the coverage, however tardy it might be, is not an attempt to generate news where there is none. The situation in Albuquerque is bad enough that the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division investigated the APD and concluded that, “Based on our investigation, we have reasonable cause to believe that APD engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Section 14141.” Specifically, over the time period examined, 2009 to 2012, "Officers were not justified under federal law in using deadly force in the majority of those incidents [which resulted in the death of an individual].” Now the APD faces Federal oversight.
The trend in Albuquerque indicates that the police are, at times, operating outside of the law. It is a rate that shouldn’t be tolerated. But it is, since those who are charged with holding them accountable have not done so. In practice, it seems that those who are charged with enforcing the law are somehow above it.
In wake of all of the killings, and the questionable circumstances surrounding them, it does not seem too much to ask the police to act responsibly and ethically. But as I have argued before, that isn’t necessarily what the public wants from the police. Regardless we, any denizen in the US, are supposed to enjoy constitutional protections, guarantees of rights regardless of citizenship, irrespective of what the public seem to demand. Yet law enforcement in Albuquerque seems to be reneging on those obligations to ensure those constitutional protections.
"What should be done?" is a difficult question to answer, but perhaps seeking accountability is a good start. So, who should be held accountable for it all? Chief Eden? The mayor, Richard Berry? The DA, Ms. Brandenburg? The voters?
As the chief of police, the buck should stop at Gorden Eden’s desk, but why doesn’t it seem to be that way? Given that Chief Eden was recruited from outside of the department, could the continued brutality be an indication of a culture which is endemic to the job? That’s a scary thought.
Then there is the man who appointed Mr. Eden, The mayor Richard Barry. If the behaviour of the police department is not endemic, did he totally whiff in his appointment of police chief? He seems to be recognizing that the brutality is that and has now asked the DOJ for assistance with the police force. Still, there is the question of what took him so long.
Next we have to wonder about the DA, Ms. Brandenburg, who has failed to charge any police involved in these deaths. Now, it is possible that at least some of the shootings could have been justified. But Mr. Boyd was shot in the back, after having recoiled from a police stun grenade. Then he was shot with beanbags. How does that order of ammunition fired make sense? Why use lethal force before non-lethal force? The police had spent five hours negotiating with Mr. Boyd and finally got him to agree to leave. So why shoot him? He didn’t lunge at a cop. He didn’t throw anything at anyone. I can’t help but wonder what Ms. Brandenburg is waiting for.
It is clear that each one of those guardians of the public interest seem to have failed. If these brutal actions continue, it is hard to believe that the public will have confidence in the local government to meet its obligations. Accordingly, it is no small wonder that the federal government is threatening to step in. But what does that indicate? Perhaps that democracy in Albuquerque isn’t functioning as billed.
There is a group of people who are must be held ultimately accountable: the voters. While it might seem as if the people of Albuquerque do not approve of the police brutality, with some even going so far as to attempt to place the Chief of Police under citizen’s arrest, we mustn’t forget that the actors who have could have but failed to hold law enforcement accountable were either directly elected by the citizens of Albuquerque or appointed to their positions by those who were.
By all outward appearances there has been no push back over this issue, at least within the voting booth. The voters re-elected Ms. Brandenburg in 2012 with an overwhelming mandate of 96 percent of the vote. The following year they re-elected Mr. Berry with a strong mandate of 68 percent. Though this scandal is recent news outside of New Mexico, considering the pattern of police aggression has dated back four years, those elections should have been far more contested. Instead, the results seem to indicate that the voting public legitimated the government, and by extension, the police force, which acts as the government’s control arm.
Yes the people have a right to complain if their elected officials fail in their tasks, but that voice of complaint seems muted in the wake of such resounding endorsements during a time when the problem was plain to see. Accountability is in the hands of the voters and in Albuquerque they have not adequately exercised their power to hold law enforcement accountable.