US police officers charged with killing homeless camper

2015-01-13 07:50
Dominique Perez. (Albuquerque police department, AP)

Dominique Perez. (Albuquerque police department, AP)

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Albuquerque - Two Albuquerque police officers were charged with murder on Monday in the March killing of a homeless camper, a shooting that generated sometimes violent protests around the southwestern city and brought new scrutiny to the police department amid a federal investigation.

The shooting occurred during a year when police tactics came under intense scrutiny around the US, fuelled by the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of another unarmed man in New York City. Grand juries declined to charge officers in those cases, leading to protests.

Police said SWAT team member Dominique Perez and former detective Keith Sandy fatally shot Boyd, who was holding two knives, during a standoff in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Video from an officer's helmet camera showed Boyd, who authorities say was mentally ill, appearing to surrender when officers opened fire.

"Unlike Ferguson and unlike in New York City, we're going to know. The public is going to have that information," said District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, who said she decided to bring murder charges and avoid a grand jury to heighten transparency.

Brandenburg has been criticised for her office's decades-old practice of using grand juries to affirm prosecutors' decisions that no probable cause existed to charge officers in shootings. Grand jury proceedings are closed to the public.

Under a revamped system, county prosecutors now decide whether there's probable cause that a crime was committed and either take the case to a grand jury or opt to file a "criminal information" charge on their own, as Brandenburg did against Perez and Sandy.

Each officer faces a single count in the March death of 38-year-old James Boyd. The charges allow prosecutors to pursue either first-degree or second-degree murder against the officers.


Sam Bregman, lawyer for Sandy, said there is "not one shred" of evidence to support the case. Bergman says the officer had no criminal intent when he encountered the knife-wielding homeless man who had a long history of violent encounters with authorities, and that he followed training procedures outlined by the police department.

As a police officer, Sandy "had not only the right but the duty to defend a fellow officer from a mentally unstable, violent man wielding two knives," Bregman said.

Luis Robles, an attorney for Perez, said he was "confident that the facts will vindicate officer Perez's actions in this case."

The FBI is also investigating, but US authorities have not said if the officers will face federal charges.

Even before Boyd's death, the US justice department was investigating the use of force by Albuquerque police. The department recently signed an agreement to make changes after the government issued a harsh report. The agreement requires police to provide better training for officers and to dismantle troubled units.

Since 2010, Albuquerque police have been involved in 40 shootings — 27 of them deadly. After Boyd's death, outrage over the trend grew.

The protests included a demonstration where authorities fired tear gas and another that shut down a city council meeting.

The criminal charges were the first Brandenburg has brought against officers in a shooting. She is in her fourth term as district attorney and is waging a fight with the Albuquerque police department over allegations that she committed bribery while intervening on behalf of her son in a burglary case.

Police believe she should be charged with bribery because they say she offered to pay a victim not to press charges. The attorney general's office is handling the matter.

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