ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Albuquerque Police Department was already the subject of a Department of Justice investigation when officers on March 16 shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless, mentally ill man found camping in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.
But it was one officer’s helmet camera recording of the four-hour standoff’s denouement — Boyd agreeing to leave with the officers and collecting his belongings, then being shot as police suddenly launched an offensive — that quickly brought the city’s simmering anxiety to a rolling boil of protests and demands for change.
Boyd’s death was one of 37 officer-involved shootings, 23 of them fatal, that prompted the DOJ in 2012 to launch an investigation that culminated last week with a finding that the Albuquerque Police Department was engaged in a “pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force” that violated citizens’ constitutional rights, according to a DOJ letter to Mayor Richard Berry.
Federal investigators also found that although APD rules required officers to use the body cameras, officers often neglected to use them and were rarely reprimanded for failing to record.
Police officials say recordings most often exonerate officers and can help with investigations, but as law enforcement agencies from New York to Los Angeles increasingly adopt the cameras, the video of one man’s death in Albuquerque highlights the power of recording as a reform tool and focuses debate on how, exactly, the cameras are used.
Federal investigators reviewed 20 officer-involved shootings and more than 200 use-of-force reports from the APD and released their findings in the 46-page letter to Berry, which cited “insufficient oversight, inadequate training and ineffective policies.” The report praised the APD for adopting technologies such as lapel cameras to increase accountability but said police leaders “reacted hastily” in requiring all officers to use lapel cameras without working to earn officers’ support and then failing to make sure officers actually used them.
In fact, enforcement was so lax, the decision to require the cameras “appeared directed only at placating public criticism,” according to the report.
A new tool
Reform advocates here have long demanded more oversight of police, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico recently asked the City Council to pass legislation requiring officers to use the cameras, implementing stiff penalties for noncompliance.
The Rev. Rusty Smith blesses the casket of James Boyd, a homeless man who was fatally shot by Albuquerque police. A helmet camera worn by one of the officers provided controversial video of the encounter.Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal/AP
But the cameras are a fairly new tool for law enforcement agencies, and rules governing their use are still developing.
This city of half a million started equipping its officers with cameras in 2010, but now it is one of many trying out different technologies and protocols. The New York Police Department began using cameras, including two pairs of Google Glass wearable computers, after a judge ruled its stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional in 2013. The Los Angeles Police Department began testing video recording devices in January at the urging of its civilian-run Police Commission; officials gave mostly positive feedback to commissioners in March, halfway through a 90-day trial.
Civil liberties groups praise the cameras as a safeguard against abuse of power, citing a 2012 controlled study in Rialto, Calif. That showed use of force by officers dropped 50 percent when they wore the cameras; civilian complaints dropped 88 percent.
A blanket recording policy provides the most accountability, according to an ACLU report that maintains that “policies and technology must be designed to ensure that police cannot ‘edit on the fly’ — i.e., choose which encounters to record with limitless discretion. If police are free to turn the cameras on and off as they please, the cameras’ role in providing a check and balance against police power will shrink, and they will no longer become a net benefit.”
Still, some officers bristle at the idea of being under constant surveillance.
“We know lapel cameras are a great tool,” Albuquerque police union head Stephanie Lopez said April 9. “But officers are human beings. You’re going to be hard pressed to find anybody who wants to work in this profession if they know their entire shift is recorded.”
Reeling from the string of 23 killings, armed with studies showing the recordings drastically reduce incidents of police misconduct, and after a week of protests marked by angry confrontations, vandalism and tear gas, some see now as the time to establish strict rules about recordings.
“Clearly the leadership is incapable of enforcing its own policies,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico ACLU.
Lopez said that although the technology has improved, the cameras aren’t perfectly reliable and it’s unreasonable to ask for 100 percent compliance, especially in life-or-death situations.
Berry, who took office in late 2009, declined to take a position on stricter rules for police cameras before hearing the results of the DOJ investigation. After the findings were released, he pledged to work closely with the federal government to improve the situation, which he described as “an achievable goal.” He hired an ACLU lawyer and a former police chief from Cincinnati, the subject of a 2001 DOJ investigation into use of force, to negotiate a reform agreement on the city’s behalf.
“‘Transparency’ is a buzzword right now, but it is the hallmark of a democracy,” said Susan Boe, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, which has advocated for the release of police videos on behalf of media and the public. “Sometimes the truth, like this video [of Boyd], will make us squirm. But let’s get those facts out there, and then we can argue about what those facts mean.”