An FBI probe into recent police shootings in Albuquerque may reveal much about how officers treat the city’s most vulnerable populations.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the 1,100-officer force following the March 16 fatal shooting of James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man who was camping in the Sandia foothills.
Boyd was killed after an hours-long standoff with police, during which he threatened to kill officers with a small knife. He died after officers fired stun guns, bean bags and six live rounds.
A helmet-camera video released by the police shows Boyd, who had a history of mental illness and claimed to be a federal agent, agreeing to walk down the mountain with the officers. But as he was gathering his things and taking a step forward, officers fired on him.
Hundreds of community members took to the streets two days later to protest that shooting and a history of police brutality. That same night, Albuquerque police shot and killed another man, Alfred Redwine, after he reportedly opened fire on officers at a public housing complex.
According to the Office of the Medical Investigator, Redwine was Native. His mother, Sandra Othole, joined a second protest on Sunday, March 30, which ended in chaos after community members spent more than 10 hours calling on the police chief and other city officials to resign.
Protestors threw gas canisters outside police headquarters and trapped police officers in a vehicle. In response, officers dressed in riot gear lobbed tear gas at the crowd.
Afterward, Othole told reporters her son’s death was unnecessary.
“They need other people to help train these officers more,” she said. “They need more and more training, they have to do something. There is too many killings.”
The federal investigation is the first criminal probe of the Albuquerque police, but it comes a year after the Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation into allegations of excessive force and a spike in police shootings. Since 2010, police have been involved in 37 shootings; 23 of those were fatal.
Critics say that’s way too many for a city of about 555,000 people.
“It’s become a public safety crisis,” said Bineshi Albert, of the Native American Voters Alliance in Albuquerque. “There’s outrage, surely, and good reason for people to be outraged.”
Of the 23 fatal shootings, two were American Indians, according to the Office of the Medical Investigator. Len Fuentes was killed in 2010 after he threatened police officers with a knife. The case involving Redwine is still under investigation.
Even two Native fatalities is too high, said Albert, who is Chippewa and Yuchi. According to 2010 Census data, about 25,000 Natives live in Albuquerque, or less than 5 percent of the city’s total population.
“Two of 23 is significant,” Albert said. “It’s more than what it should be, given the population.”
The police force has not made public data about the ethnic background of its officers, but protestors claim most are either white or Hispanic.
“When you look at the police, it’s really made up of two nationalities,” said L.C. Elk-Brooks, who grew up on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. “There is no understanding of our beliefs or how we work.”
Police officers don’t know how to approach Native suspects or how to interact with them, Elk-Brooks said. She believes some officers target Native people simply because they don’t understand the culture.
“I think the officers shoot out of fear because they don’t understand,” she said. “We’ve all been hassled by the police, but nothing gets better if you don’t honor the other person, if you don’t see beauty in them.”
Albert believes there is a “gross underreporting” of police brutality toward Natives who don’t have the means to report incidents or the advocacy to get outside forces to take notice.
“We are a marginalized community and people don’t have the opportunity to report brutality,” she said.
She faulted the police department for lowering its education and training standards in order to beef up its manpower.
“What that means is there is less training and less policy and practice around issues of substance abuse and mental health,” she said. “That’s very specific in the Native community because those issues are being dealt with in a criminal manner instead of a helpful, social manner.”
Alfred, who has two sons and a daughter, hopes the federal investigation uncovers shortcomings and promotes solutions so all vulnerable populations in Albuquerque again can feel safe.
“The community should not be afraid of law enforcement,” she said. “It’s a hard and even shameful thing to think that we live in a time when I have to tell my children how they have to behave when approached by a police officer, as opposed to telling my children that if they’re in trouble they can go to the police. It’s a sad situation, but I’m more fearful that the police will harm them.”
The federal investigation is being conducted by the Justice Department’s criminal section of the Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico and the FBI.
In a statement, the FBI said it is looking into Boyd’s death to “assure the public that a thorough and fair investigation will be conducted.”
The Albuquerque Police Department did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry wrote a letter to the Justice Department supporting the investigation and asking that it be expedited.
In the letter, he said the investigation “will help bring about any necessary system improvements and accountability measures.”