Political News

Police officer trial spotlights conflicts with mentally ill

Posted September 17

— Officers spent hours calling for a homeless man gripped by a range of delusions to drop his knives, abandon his campsite and walk down the rocky slope with them. But James Boyd stayed put, shouting about a made-up "matter of national security" and a mission for the Department of Defense.

In short bursts of outrage, he yelled threats at officers. At another point, he offered them gum.

Nineteen Albuquerque and state police officers, including tactical officers and K-9 units, responded to the scene of Boyd's illegal campsite, many surrounding him with weapons drawn before it appeared, according to a police video, that he might surrender.

"I'll put my hands on my head; I'm not a criminal" said the 38-year-old Boyd, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

Moments later, he was fatally shot after police deployed a smoke bomb and authorities say he brandished his knives.

On Monday, the two officers whose bullets struck Boyd — now-retired Detective Keith Sandy and former SWAT Officer Dominique Perez — will stand trial on second-degree murder charges in Boyd's March 2014 death, which emerged as the most high-profile case in a string of controversial Albuquerque police shootings at the time.

Defense attorneys say their clients shot Boyd to protect other officers on the scene.

"There's this huge scrutiny of police that we see all over the country now with people watching a 10-second video and thinking they know all the factors that are involved," said Shawn Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque police union, which supports the officers. "You have to look at why these officers did what they did."

The long-awaited trial for Perez and Sandy comes more than two years after Boyd's death sparked violent protests in New Mexico's largest city, and will unfold amid a broader national debate over shootings by police.

The scrutiny of shootings by law enforcement, while mostly focused on race, also has spotlighted officers' encounters with the mentally ill, in part, because of outcry over video from the Boyd shooting.

Nationwide, up to half of instances of deadly force by police were believed to have involved mentally illness, according to a December 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia. The center reviewed cases between 1980 and 2008, while acknowledging that a lack of complete government data on police use of force made it difficult to present a firmer statistic.

In Albuquerque, officials said at the time Boyd was killed that three-fourths of the fatal and non-fatal shootings by police since 2010 had involved someone dealing with a mental health crisis. In that time span, there were 37 fatal and non-fatal officer-involved shootings in the city.

A month after Boyd's death, the Justice Department released findings from a more than yearlong investigation into Albuquerque police and faulted officers for using unreasonable force with the mentally ill and others who could not comply with officers' commands.

Boyd's mental state and how police responded to a resident complaint that he was camping illegally are expected to be raised by prosecutors at trial. Special prosecutor Randi McGinn has questioned potential jurors on their views over whether someone with mental illness can be held responsible for their actions.

A longtime trial lawyer, McGinn agreed to prosecute the case after a judge ruled an ongoing dispute between the District Attorney Kari Brandenburg and Albuquerque police over a bribery investigation involving Brandenburg's son created a conflict of interest.

In a previous hearing, McGinn argued that a "paramilitary response" by police created a dangerous situation that led to the deadly outcome of the standoff. Boyd's campsite was situated behind a home in a boulder and cactus-laden patch of the Sandia Mountain foothills.

"If you look at these transcripts, mostly he's saying he's afraid," McGinn said in court. "He's afraid they're going to kill him and that's why he's not going down."

The smoke bomb that went off near Boyd was intended to disorient him, officers said. But Boyd hardly budged, except to reach for his knives and clinch them in his fists like ice picks, as Perez later described to an investigator.

Boyd was hit in the arm first by one of Sandy's bullet. A round fired by Perez struck Boyd in the back as he turned away.

Attorneys for Perez and Sandy have signaled that they'll place focus on threats Boyd shouted down at officers from the mountain, including a "personal promise" to one officer that he would kill him, as well as the distance between Boyd and a K-9 handler.

A judge has limited how much of Boyd's criminal history the defense can present at trial. His arrest record spanned more than a decade, with his most recent criminal cases stemming from an attack at the county jail and an assault on a police officer. In both cases, he was found incompetent to stand trial.

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