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Opinion Albuquerque prosecutor indicts cops, immediately faces repercussions

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.

It’s also a city where this just happened:

It was an undercover operation to bust two men for selling $60 worth of methamphetamine, but things didn’t go as planned.
An Albuquerque police lieutenant shot a fellow officer who was working undercover in a McDonald’s parking lot near Central and Tramway just before noon Friday.
Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden said Saturday the male officer remained in critical condition at University of New Mexico Hospital. He is in the intensive care unit and has undergone multiple surgeries.
Police haven’t released the name of the officer who was shot, the lieutenant who shot the officer, or the identity of another officer who suffered minor injuries during the operation. Criminal complaints filed in Metropolitan Court against the two targets of the investigation identify the undercover officers as detectives Holly Garcia and Jacob Grant.
“Undercover narcotics work is probably some of the most dangerous work that we do in law enforcement,” Eden said during a Saturday news conference. “Due to the nature of those undercover operations it’s impractical for those narcotics officers, those narcotics detectives, to wear body armor. It’s very impractical for them to wear on-body cameras.”
The complaint makes no mention of the shooting, and police haven’t yet provided any details about what went wrong, or why the high-ranking officer opened fire.

The drug suspects were charged with drug trafficking, but faced no weapons charges. So it appears that the police lieutenant opened fire despite there no being no threat. It will be difficult to blame this shooting on the victim reaching for a waistband, or on anti-police rhetoric.

There are loads of incentives for a DA to decline to bring charges against bad cops, and very few pushing in the direction of indictment. Police organizations and their supporters are loud, powerful and well organized. They can make a DA’s day-to-day professional life pretty miserable, and an endorsement of a DA’s opponent in the next election could end a prosecutor’s career. At worst, a controversial decision to not file charges might bring some protests. But few DAs need to worry about not getting reelected because they neglected to charge a cop — even one who clearly broke the law. Or at least that’s the case right now.

Now think about another prosecutor in some other part of the country who perhaps would like to do more to hold rogue police officers accountable. He or she is watching what’s happening now in Albuquerque. What lesson does that prosecutor take away?

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.