ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A “paramilitary response” by police in New Mexico unnecessarily escalated an encounter last year that ended when two officers unlawfully opened fire and killed a homeless man despite signs that he wanted to surrender, a special prosecutor said Monday.
The two Albuquerque officers charged with murder in the death of James Boyd came to the scene with the intent of attacking him, Special Prosecutor Randi McGinn asserted at a preliminary hearing to decide if the officers should stand trial.
“What was the crime that prompted this paramilitary response? It was not a terrorist act. It was illegal camping,” McGinn said during his opening statement at the hearing for Officer Dominique Perez and former Detective Keith Sandy.
In their opening statements, defense attorneys said their clients did nothing wrong and both felt the lives of their fellow officers were in danger. The prosecutor said the shooting occurred after 19 officers armed with a total of more than 700 rounds of ammunition surrounded Boyd for camping illegally in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.
Boyd, 38, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, had two pocket knives and was gathering his belongings when Perez and Sandy fired three rounds each, McGinn said. “They created the danger. It was not Mr. Boyd who came at them,” McGinn told the judge at the hearing expected to last a week.
Boyd was shot during the March 2014 standoff and later died at a hospital after his arm was amputated. Video of the encounter showed him appearing to surrender before Perez and Sandy opened fire. Authorities have said he threatened officers with the two knives.
The shooting generated angry protests around Albuquerque that closed City Hall and sparked a cyberattack on city websites. Boyd’s death came amid a wave of police shootings in Albuquerque and just before the U.S. Justice Department issued a harsh report into use of excessive force by the Albuquerque Police Department.
There have been more than 40 police shootings in Albuquerque since 2010. A federal judge recently approved an agreement between the city and the Justice Department to revamp police policies and assign a federal monitor to make sure changes are made.
Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden testified at Monday’s hearing that all officers were trained on the department’s use of force policies. However, under cross-examination, he said officers should follow the law instead of the policies in case of a conflict.
Eden had been in the job less than two weeks at the time of the Boyd shooting. Both sides also replayed a number of video clips from the standoff and the shooting to show how officers were responding to Boyd.
In one clip played Sandy is heard telling a state police sergeant that he was going to “shoot (Boyd) with a Taser shotgun here in a minute” and called Boyd a “lunatic.” The Boyd case is not about 700 rounds of ammunition or the policies of Albuquerque police, said defense attorney Sam Bregman, who is defending Sandy.
Instead, it’s about two officers facing murder charges in the justified shooting of “a crazy man with two knives,” Bregman said. “I’m surprise (prosecutors) didn’t argue that Mr. Boyd would have been justified to stab” officers, the lawyer said.
Bregman said Sandy’s comment about Boyd may have not been politically correct but was “factually correct.” Luis Robles, a lawyer for Perez, said offices gave Boyd a number of chances to surrender and accept help hours before the shooting.
“But Mr. Boyd would have none of that,” Robles said. Boyd was responsible for the shooting because officers had no choice except to open fire after he made threatening move, Robles said. Perez, a SWAT team member, and Sandy are the first officers that Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg has charged with murder.
State District Judge Alisa Hadfield in April disqualified Brandenburg or anyone in her office from prosecuting the case and ordered her to appoint a special prosecutor. The judge determined an ongoing dispute between Brandenburg and Albuquerque police over a bribery investigation involving Brandenburg created a conflict of interest.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas later decided not to seek charges against Brandenburg.