ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Outrage has ignited over a helmet-cam video of officers fatally confronting a homeless man at his primitive campsite in the foothills. Video shows the man standing by his meager possessions, surrounded by rifle-toting officers who were citing him for illegally camping without government permission. Officers ultimately tossed a concussion grenade in his face, sicced an attack dog on him, and shot him to death with a flurry of gunfire.
The incident took place on Sunday, March 16th. Police were tipped off about an unauthorized camper in the Sandia Foothills in the outskirts of Albuquerque. Officers came upon James M. Boyd, 38, who was evidently living at his campsite. The police chief confirmed that the man was sleeping when officers arrived.
“Camping is not permitted in Open Space without a permit,” the City of Albuquerque states on its website. Boyd, who was homeless, had no permit. His unauthorized stay on the desolate hillside would not go unpunished.
The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) confronted Boyd and began harassing him about his living arrangements. When one officer attempted to search Boyd, he did not comply. Boyd claimed he was himself a government agent who worked for the Department of Defense. Boyd stated that he would use force to protect himself “because you’re trying to take me over.”
APD researched Boyd’s personal medical history and discovered past treatments for mental health issues, which is quite common among the homeless population. Instead of leaving him alone, APD continued to escalate the situation with more officers and overwhelming force.
Police argued with Boyd for approximately 3 hours on the rocky foothills. The dramatic scene involved officers training rifles at Mr. Boyd, some of which was captured on video by a bystander and also of which was recorded by at least one officer’s helmet-cam.
APD deployed members of the ROP Team to deal with this “mentally unstable homeless person.” The ROP Team (Repeat Offender Project) is an elite unit of cops that work in plainclothes and deal with the “worst” of Albuquerque’s criminals. They were joined by an APD Crisis Intervention Team officer as well as New Mexico State Police.
When the situation reached its climax around 7:30 p.m., Boyd had allegedly agreed to end the standoff, but warned APD that they must keep their word.
“Don’t change up the agreement,” Boyd said to officers. “I’m going to try and walk now. Don’t try to harm me. If you keep your word, I can keep you safe.”
Boyd put on his backpack. He reached down to pick up a thermos, placed it in his right hand and grabbed a blue bag in his left hand.
“Don’t worry about safety, I’m not a [expletive] murderer,” Boyd continued. “Don’t try it. Don’t try to harm me. I won’t try to harm you. Alright?”
Boyd tried to walk away. But police were not going to let that happen.
“Do it,” one of the officers said, and a flashbang grenade was lobbed at Boyd’s feet. A loud explosion and a puff of smoke followed.
Police can be heard shouting, “Get on the ground,” as they rushed in with weapons trained on him. A barking K9 advanced toward him. Mr. Boyd, now under attack, dropped his bags and instinctively retrieved a knife from his pocket. Nevertheless, he did not advance and did not make any threatening gestures. The nearest officer still remained several feet away.
Boyd stood there for approximately 5 seconds, then turned away from officers and began to descend to the ground — possibly a sign of compliance with demands to get on the ground. For reasons unclear, police opened fire. A volley of rifle rounds, beanbag rounds, and tasers fired at the man in near unison.
James Boyd fell instantly to the ground.
“Boo-yah!” the warrior-cop triumphantly exclaimed.
The assault team closed in on Boyd’s body, barking orders at him to get his hands up. Boyd could be heard on video saying “I can’t move.”
“Please don’t hurt me anymore,” he moaned.
Unsatisfied, police opened fire again, this time on his prone, lifeless body with beanbag rounds from a shotgun. He did not budge after repeated strikes. Next, the police dog was turned loose on him and gnawed on his leg. He remained unresponsive.
Officers then moved in and secured his body. Boyd did not survive.
Ultimately, 15 seconds after agreeing to end the standoff, he was shot and lying on the ground.
Watch raw video of the confrontation here:
READ MORE: The right way and the wrong way to deal with mentally ill suspects (by Retired Police Lieutenant Harry Thomas)
When asked if the shooting was justified, Police Chief Gordon Eden said, “Do I believe it was justified shooting? Yes, if you follow case law, ‘Garner versus Tennessee’, there was directed threat to an officer.” Eden’s reference was an attempt to justify the shooting of Mr. Boyd as he walked away. In Tennessee v. Garner, police shot a fleeing 15-year-old in the back of the head as he tried to climb a fence. The Supreme Court ruled that it was reasonable to kill suspects as they try to escape, even if unarmed, if the officers have a probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.
Whether that case law is relevant to the killing of James Boyd remains to be seen. But the department stands by the homicide. Chief Eden also pointed out that “less than lethal devices” had been used, as if to justify the use of deadly force.
Others were not so convinced. KRQE interviewed an experienced attorney who has gone after APD before for its wrongful killings.
“I’m shocked, I’ve never seen a murder captured on videotape before,” said attorney Joe Kennedy to KRQE. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”
The attorney says that police officers created their own danger by removing the distance between themselves and Mr. Boyd, suggesting that police claim their lives are in danger when they actually are not.
“The big lie is anytime our officers shoot, they had a right to shoot because they felt threatened, and if this doesn’t convince this chief and this mayor that officers are out there killing people without justification, I don’t know what will,” said Kennedy.
“If they’re giving him an order to get down on the ground and he behaves in a manner that looks like he’s getting down on the ground, at what right do you have to shoot him?” said Kennedy.
Watch KRQE’s coverage of the incident and an interview with attorney Joe Kennedy:
Police have been quick to bring up James Boyd’s past, which included treatment for his mental illness and a history of arrests, for fighting. Yet their own officers seem to have an unsavory history.
Officer Keith Sandy, one of the officers who fired rifle rounds into Mr. Boyd, has been a controversial officer since the day he was hired by Albuquerque. Officer Sandy had been fired from his last job as a State Trooper for allegedly committing fraud by working a 2nd job while on the clock as an officer. Nonetheless, Sandy and several other disgraced cops were picked up by APD in 2007.
“They do not carry guns, they are not going to be badged,” the former APD chief promised in 2007. “They’re civilian employees. They’ll be collecting evidence.”
That promise turned out to a lie, as all of the officers in question were given badges, guns, and power over the citizens. Keith Sandy was elevated to several elite police units including the Vice Unit and ROP. He has since been involved in some high-profile botched cases and is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit for violations of civil rights and conducting illegal searches, according to KRQE.
The department itself has been in numerous controversial shootings. In 2010, the city settled for $10 million for the wrongful death of Kenneth Ellis. A video has recently been released of a shooting in which an officer shoots several rounds into a suspect’s back. Since 2012, the Department of Justice has been investigating the APD for its repeated use of excessive force, “including use of unreasonable deadly force.”
The APD is apparently plagued with poor decisions, faulty tactics, civil rights violations, and unwarranted killings. Citizens are responsible to be the watchdogs over the police, and they undoubtedly have their work cut out for them in Albuquerque. In the wake of the latest killing, the public should reject the tactics used on James Boyd and call for a massive housecleaning in the APD, beginning with the removal of corrupt cops who should not have been hired in the first place. Citizens should also be advised that the city takes camping permits very seriously.
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The two officers who shot their rifles were Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy. Let the department know how the public feels about the death of James Boyd.