January 19, 2015

Here’s a look at APD’s troubling past of retaliating against those who oppose them, and how the national press is covering the charges against APD’s own

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Protests following the shooting of homeless camper James Boyd by APD, March 30, 2014

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Each year, we take pause to reflect on society and take stock of our progress towards achieving justice in a country built on a belief in justice for all.

This year, more than others I can recall, the way we define justice and manifest our struggle for it are on sharp display in cities across the country.

This morning, Vice President Joe Biden marked today’s national holiday with reflections on the divide between police and communities they serve.

Here is Albuquerque, we have seen a tough year in our own struggle for justice and an unusual backlash from police against those who are seeking to restore a sense of justice to their badge.

A recent headline on a Washington Post column sums it up:

Albuquerque prosecutor indicts cops, immediately faces repercussions

Today is a holiday (for most) so you should have an extra 30-seconds to read the WaPo’s Radley Balko‘s take on APD’s recent actions:

This week, Bernalillo County (N.M.) District Attorney Kari Brandenburg charged two Albuquerque police officers with murder in the killing of homeless man James Boyd. The shooting was captured on video and widely covered in the national media. Brandenburg’s decision comes on the heels of the controversial non-indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, which sparked protests around the country. It didn’t take long for Albuquerque police and their supporters to react.

A top prosecutor for District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s office was shut out of a briefing after a fatal police shooting near San Mateo and Constitution NE on Tuesday evening, Brandenburg told KRQE News 13.

Police officials and others were gathering to discuss the most recent developments in the investigation a few hours after the shooting, Brandenburg said. Chief Deputy DA Sylvia Martinez attempted to join the briefing, but Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Levy would not let Martinez attend.

What Brandenburg said happened Tuesday evening would be an unprecedented move by city of Albuquerque officials, and it comes a day after Brandenburg charged two APD officers with murder in the March shooting death of homeless camper James Boyd.

Levy invoked the charges in barring Martinez from the briefing, according to Brandenburg.

“Sylvia was told that our office has a conflict of interest because we charged the officers,” she said.

Reached by telephone for comment Tuesday evening, Levy, who has for years worked as APD’s attorney, refused to answer questions . . .

Levy also told Martinez that APD “wouldn’t be needing any legal advice or help” and that Martinez “could go home,” Brandenburg said. “They told her we could call another prosecutor’s office to come down.”

Prosecutors’ presence at the scenes of police shootings and inside the investigatory briefings has been ubiquitous for decades here. In fact, the DA’s participation in the investigations is memorialized in a written agreement with APD and other agencies signed in 2004.

“I have never seen anything like this. Ever,” Brandenburg said in a telephone interview, referring to a city official shutting one of her prosecutors out of a briefing. “Clearly, this could compromise the integrity of the investigation of this shooting.”

If true, this is really reprehensible behavior and an abdication of office on the part of both police and the deputy city attorney. It’s also just the latest example of law enforcement officers and their supporters demonstrating incredible petulance in retaliation for public scrutiny or the rare attempt to hold rogue cops accountable for their actions.

Keep in mind, this is all occurring in a city that has a long history of questionable police shootings, that recently entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice after an investigation found a pattern of unconstitutional use-of-force incidents, that seems to have a problematic shoot-first culture within the police department, and that has a history of law enforcement officials retaliating against whistleblowers.

That last line, about the department having a history of retaliating against whistleblowers almost goes unnoticed, unless you remember the stories.

Here’s how Balko, in the story behind the link,  explained a few of the previous blowbacks from APD against those who tried to cry foul:

[In 2010] a former Albuquerque cop named Sam Costales was awarded $662,000 in a lawsuit against his own department. In 2006 Costales testified against fellow officers after an incident that resulted in the arrest of the retired race car driver Al Unser. Costales said Unser did not assault or threaten officers from the Bernalillo Sheriff’s Department, as claimed in police reports, and his testimony helped Unser win an acquittal.

None of the Bernalillo deputies were disciplined. But by now you probably can guess who was: Sam Costales. His own chief opened an internal affairs investigation of Costales for wearing his police uniform when he testified in Unser’s case. Albuquerque cops apparently are permitted to wear the uniform when they’re testifying for the prosecution, but not when they’re testifying for the defense.

As is often the case when an officer is investigated, the police union got involved—but not to protect Costales. James Badway, secretary of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, sent an email message to the Bernalillo sheriff stating that the union was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” that Costales would testify against fellow officers.

Those watching APD know that these weren’t the first times whistleblowers came forward to claim APD had essentially gone rogue.  In 2013, a former APD officer went public with his criticism of police administrators and city officials who showed up on the scene of the apparent suicide of civil rights attorney Mary Han who was active in pursuing cases against the department. “Something really bad happened, and APD made it worse,” the former officer told the Associated Press after leaving the department.

Before that, in 2010, APD officials assigned three officers to investigate one of their own for witness intimidation.  Two of the officers picked for the job trained under the accused and the third was identified as a “personal friend.”  Those officers also happened to be members of the controversial ROP team which responded to the call of a homeless camper in March 2014.  That camper, James Boyd, was later shot by Detective Sandy and Officer Perez, who Brandenburg have since charged with murder.

The officers determined, by the way, that the officer under investigation in 2010 that their friend and trainer had done nothing wrong.  The officer was later convicted on federal obstruction of justice charges.

Transcripts of recorded phone calls between the accused, Brad Ahrensfield, and his friend investigating him provide insight into just how APD investigated its own.  From Jeff Proctor of the Albuquerque Journal:

Ahrensfield recorded a telephone call between himself and Detective Zach Stephenson of the APD Repeat Offender Project, whom Ahrensfield has said was a longtime friend. A transcript of the call was unsealed in court Friday.

Stephenson begins the conversation by saying: “Brad, what’s up, buddy?” and indicates to Ahrensfield that he is investigating the three allegations that later comprised Neda’s motion.

“And just to give you a heads up, pretty positive it’s all going to be just … We don’t see anything criminal at all anywhere,” Stephenson tells Ahrensfield, a claim he repeats several times during the conversation.

Stephenson calls the private investigator who accused Ahrensfield of stealing files “dirty” and characterizes the APD officer who raised concerns about text messages he received from Ahrensfield about a DWI case as “an absolute flake.”

Stephenson tells Ahrensfield that he has reviewed his former APD SWAT team colleague’s conditions of release and believes he was allowed to possess firearms for work purposes. He also tells Ahrensfield that he is “glad” the investigation fell to him because he believes he can give Ahrensfield “the fairest shot (he) can get.”

He schedules a formal interview with Ahrensfield on the case and tells him he doesn’t need to bring a lawyer.

“But – regardless, the whole deal, I think, is – when we looked up and saw everything, there’s nothing there. We know that. We just need to get your side,” Stephenson says. “So we can just put it away and forget about it. You know what I mean.”

APD has a history of protecting their own.

Before the shooting of James Boyd, 25 other officer involved shootings had all been ruled justified by the investigation led by APD’s own.  The Boyd shooting was ruled that way too, until the video came forward.  And that makes the families of the other victims, and the more than a dozen other families since, question whether APD’s version of events can be trusted.

The district attorney is right to take a look.  She is elected by and has to answer to the public, even if the police department doesn’t think it doesn’t.  Ms. Brandenburg deserves the space to pursue this case without interference.  If APD has done nothing wrong, let the facts show it. And if the officers involved or those responsible for their supervision fell down on the job, we have a right to know.

Mr. Balko sums his piece up well:

The recent rallies, protests and demonstrations against police brutality and excessive force have been notable for their size, diversity and breadth (that is, they’ve been happening all over the country). But for real reform to happen, advocates will need to do more than protest the public officials who get it wrong. They’ll need to find ways to show public support for the officials who have the courage to get it right.

Dr. King said that the struggle for justice requires “the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”  

Is it time we march in support of the district attorney instead of against APD?  Maybe.

Full disclosure:  Before I joined ProgressNowNM, I served as a police officer in Washington DC and with the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and was briefly the public information officer for DA Brandenburg.  I responded to several officer-involved shooting scenes in those capacities.  I left those public positions before the Boyd shooting. – Pat