Bad Cop Blotter

Cameras Weren’t Enough to Stop the Albuquerque Police from Killing a Mentally Ill Homeless Man

By Lucy Steigerwald

A local news report on the killing of James Boyd

On March 16, two members of the Albuquerque Police Department fatally shot James Boyd, a homeless man reportedly suffering from schizophrenia. The 38-year-old wasn’t a terribly sympathetic figure—he had also been arrested a dozen times, usually for violent assaults, including attacks on law enforcement officers—but the details of his death are still troubling. On the day of the shooting, he was confronted by cops for camping illegally and wouldn’t put down a pair of knives, which resulted in a three-hour “standoff.” Eventually, Boyd began threatening to kill the officers and ranting in an unhinged manner about the Department of Defense. Cops first used a flash-bang grenade and beanbags against Boyd, but they didn't incapacitate him, so the police shot an unknown number of live rounds at him, at least one of which struck him. (Officers Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy, who fired their guns, are now on leave. Sandy was previously fired from a police job for fraud.)

Much of this sounds like a the behavior of a man police might reasonably fear, except the (graphic) video shows that Boyd was turning away from police when he was shot. In addition, it's not clear why the cops couldn’t just back off from a man who was clearly mentally ill but not currently wanted for any violent crime. The footage has outraged New Mexicans who are getting tired of the Albuquerque Police Department’s sordid history—hundreds protested the shooting over the weekend, and hackivist collective Anonymous even put down the APD website for a few hours by using denial-of-service attacks.

The reason for the rage is bigger than Boyd: Since 2010 the APD has fatally shot 22 suspects, and in 2012 the Department of Justice began investigating the department because of its unusually high number of police shootings and use-of-force incidents. The APD has also cost taxpayers a reported $24 million on lawsuit payouts in the last few years. Clearly, something is rotten in the state of New Mexico.

In a March 25 post on his Photography Is Not a Crime blog, Carlos Miller noted that the much-touted Rialto, California, police department’s institution of body cameras on all of its officers and the subsequent reduction of complaints against police is well and good, but cameras don’t stop police misconduct by themselves. In 2010, the APD became one of the first departments to put cameras on officers, but obviously that hasn’t helped solve its problems. As Miller points out (using a rather unfortunate choice of metaphor), cameras will not be “a magic bullet to curb police violence.”

Obviously it’s good that we have footage of the confrontation with Boyd—otherwise, accounts of the incident would depend solely on the word of the cops present. But despite the video showing a mentally ill man being shot as he turns away from the cops, the APD is calling this a justified use of force. Filming the police is important, but it’s more important to keep an eye on them and note when they unjustly gun down a marginal member of society.

Onto the rest of this week’s bad cops:

–On Tuesday, a member of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police department fatally shot 27-year-old DeAndre Lloyd Starks during a narcotics raid. The undercover officer who fired the single, fatal shot at the unarmed Starks for making “a threatening movement” was identified as 32-year-old Mark Wollmershauser Jr., who has been on the force since 2005. Police had a warrant for the raid, and it took place at the relatively “reasonable” hour of 5:22 PM (narcotics raids frequently take place at night or in the very early morning), but they also fatally shot an unarmed man because he didn’t show officers his hands fast enough. Wollmershauser is on paid leave while an investigation into the shooting takes place, as is traditional. Meanwhile, members of the community have planned a candlelight vigil for Starks. One local news report seems keen to stress that Starks had gun and drug charges in his past, as if to say, Don’t worry—he was one of the bad ones.

–Across the pond, a group of eight UK women who formed long-term relationships with undercover police officers are trying to make sure such things don’t happen to anyone else. These women, mostly political or animal-rights activists, are suing Scotland Yard in an effort to make them clarify their policies. They have reason to be upset, as their relationships with undercover police officers went on for as long as six years—one woman even had a child with her officer, who left after his assignment ended, which is completely insane. Law enforcement officials claim that sexual relationships while undercover are forbidden, but so far no charges against any officer have been filed (though prosecutors are reportedly considering bringing them against three of them). The women say this is not enough, and that policies need to be made clear so that nobody suffers the emotional trauma that they have.

–A Holyoke, Massachusetts, woman with cancer was arrested on Friday and held for more than four hours for failing to pay her $5 dog license fee. Technically, the outstanding warrant was over a failure to appear in court, but 41-year-old Ann Musser did go to court in September to settle her non-payment of the fee, but she left after three hours of waiting because she has advanced ovarian cancer and didn’t feel comfortable in an environment that might hurt her immune system. Musser’s cancer makes this overreaction by police even more horrible, but armed government agents coming to arrest someone for a failure to pay for a dog they already possess is fundamentally absurd. (A similar situation happened to a Massachusetts woman on March 8 over another rogue dog license. Maybe the cops in that state should adjust their policies?)

–A Sandusky, Ohio, man says sheriff’s deputies searched his home without a warrant on Tuesday, March 25. John Collins, 26, claims Huron County deputies pushed into his apartment when he opened the door, handcuffed him, and placed him on the floor for 20 minutes, then searched the place, breaking several of his belongings, including his tablet and a memento from his dead son. Johnson says two of the deputies knew him from going to school together, but they didn’t acknowledge that they were obviously in the wrong apartment. He says one deputy began to read his rights and arrest him before the rest of them realized they weren't in the right place and that Collins was not the suspected drug trafficker they were looking for. The deputies apologized and left the apartment, but strangely, both the search warrant and the gag order on the search warrant are under gag order. The Sandusky Register also notes that the Huron County sheriff’s department has a habit of not complying with requests for public information in spite of Ohio’s public record laws. For his part, Sheriff Dane Howard disputes Collins’s account of the event—though he won’t release the search warrant, which would clear a lot of this up.

On Tuesday, Rahinah Ibrahim became the first person to get off the federal government’s no-fly list after a seven-year battle. One of the artifacts of the post-9/11 war on terror, this list probably has hundreds of thousands of names on it, though you can’t be sure you’re on the list until you’re prevented from boarding a plane. And even if you are barred from a flight, the government’s response is usually a coy “maybe you’re on the list, maybe you’re not.” Ibrahim’s inclusion on the list was a clear mistake, but getting her off of it was still a nightmare. Yet another reason to abolish the Department of Homeland Security.

–Good luck and a quick response helped a sheriff’s deputy save the life of a toddler on Wednesday in Indiana. The mother of 21-month-old Olivia Turnick called 911 because her daughter had turned blue, and Porter County Sheriff's Sergeant Jeremy Chavez was close enough to respond to the call in under a minute. He performed first aid on Olivia, and she soon began crying and breathing. Chavez is our Good Cop of the Week for being close enough to help and reacting fast enough to save a child.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter.

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