ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Grand juries reviewing police shootings in Bernalillo County and Albuquerque operate under a highly unusual process where they don’t have the power to indict an officer even in the most egregious cases, only determine if the shooting was justified.
Police officials for years have countered criticism of dozens of officer-involved shootings by noting that every case has a grand jury review.
But an analysis of the proceedings by the Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/Ihp2lx ) shows the panels are not only toothless but aren’t even instructed on possible criminal violations. All they hear is the law on justifiable shootings like self-defense.
Prosecutors defend the process, saying the reviews should inspire public trust.
But Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said it may be time for the district attorney to consider other options in order to ensure the public has faith in the process.
“It is incumbent, in order to gain the public trust, that each case be reviewed independently based on the comprehensive investigation that’s presented to them,” he said. “A one-size-fits-all approach may not be in the best interest of the community.”
No one involved in the process can recall a single “unjustified” finding since the process was put in place in the late 1980s following criticism of police shootings at the time — even in a case in which the officer was fired and the city paid nearly $1 million to settle a civil lawsuit.
Critics say that’s by design.
“It looks to me like a device that’s designed to give police a pass on shootings,” said Ray Twohig, a longtime civil rights attorney. “The public should have no confidence whatsoever in this process — there’s no independent investigation . The goal is: ‘Let’s not indict any cops.'”
While grand jury proceedings are typically secret, the New Mexico Supreme Court recently concluded that the secrecy rules don’t apply to the police shooting review panels because they don’t function the same way as traditional grand juries.
The journal was able to review one of the special grand jury proceedings last week after the Second Judicial District Court handed over recordings in response to the newspaper’s request under the Inspection of Public Records Act.
A grand jury listened to seven hours of testimony into then-APD officer Brandon Carr’s November 2009 shooting of unarmed U.S. Air Force veteran Rodrick Jones. The department fired Carr, the city’s independent review officer said the shooting was unjustified, and the city settled a civil wrongful death lawsuit for $950,000.
But after testimony from Carr and another officer that contradicted ballistics and forensic evidence, the grand jury did what all its predecessors had done: It ruled the shooting “justified” under New Mexico law.
Attorney Joe Fine, who represented Jones’ family in a wrongful death lawsuit, said the family was “shocked and hurt” by the grand jury’s conclusion.
Deputy District Attorney Gary Cade said police shootings are investigated as homicides.
“They are all treated as criminal investigations,” Cade said. “The officers are read their Miranda rights. Many avail themselves of an attorney. I can’t think of anyone who has gotten special treatment. Officers are always told: ‘You will be treated like anybody else who has shot someone.’ ”
But in nearly every homicide that doesn’t involve a police officer, civil rights lawyers say prosecutors take a proposed indictment to a target grand jury, which returns either a “true bill” of charges or a “no bill,” in which no charges go forward.
Attorney Shannon Kennedy said she had assumed for years that police shooting cases were taken to target grand juries. She learned about the investigative grand jury process last year and said it is designed to treat officers differently from ordinary citizens.
“They are basically operating above the law,” she said. “Officers in APD know about this process; they know they will be exonerated. This contributes to more and more police shootings, because there is this culture of no accountability.”
Albuquerque Police Officers Association officials did not respond to requests for comment.
APD officers have shot 24 people since 2010, 17 of them fatally.
Twenty-six officers fired shots in those incidents.
Cade said a prosecutor responds to every police shooting and all are taken to investigative grand juries to maintain public trust in the process.
“It’s a policy of our office that I happen to agree with,” Cade said. “We are letting 12 members of the community decide . I haven’t had any concerns about the cases I’ve been on call for. Officers bear a heavy burden when they put on that uniform and badge, and the courts have recognized that.”