ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two Albuquerque police officers who were involved in separate non-fatal shootings have been cleared by the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office.
The office announced its findings Friday, saying no criminal charges should be pursued against officers Leah Kelly and Brian Pitzer. The officers were also cleared through the police department’s internal affairs and by the Police Oversight Commission.
The two men who were shot — Chandler Barr and Russell Tenorio — were both holding knives at the time of the shootings and had been living with different forms of mental illness, the Albuquerque Journal reports (http://bit.ly/18RNWFA).
Barr and Tenorio are now suing the police department in federal court over alleged civil rights violations.
Since March, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s office has come to the same conclusion in eight internal reviews of police shootings. The findings were made under a revamped system in which county prosecutors decide whether there’s probable cause that a crime was committed and then present the case to a grand jury to decide.
A previous process blocked by courts had a special grand jury reviewing cases but not deciding whether cases should be prosecuted. There were concerns that the system lacked impartiality and legal justification.
The new system also allows those shot by police, or their representatives, to weigh in.
Attorney Cammie Nichols, who is representing Barr, sent a letter to Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Drebing on Wednesday. She suggested that, although Supreme Court case law allows leeway for police to use deadly force, the reviews by county prosecutors go too far and create a different legal system for law enforcement.
Nichols wrote that the prosecutors’ review assumes an officer’s account is credible.
“Ordinary people are not privileged with this presumption when facing a potential criminal charge,” she wrote. “It is hard to see how any officer-involved shooting will ever lead to a criminal prosecution of the officer involved, if their account of the events, or of what he or she perceived to be the events, is automatically considered credible.”
The city of Albuquerque is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department over excessive force claims after the city had more than two dozen officer-involved shootings since 2010. The investigation was launched amid protests, lawsuits and demands by civil rights advocates.
In the case of Barr, he was shot by Kelly on Sept. 14, 2010. After spending three days at the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center, he went to a downtown bus station, got into an argument with an employee over his ticket and began cutting himself with a knife.
Police had yelled at Barr to drop the knife but he walked slowly toward Kelly, looking confused and dazed, according to court records. That’s when Kelly shot him twice.
Tenorio was shot on Nov. 11, 2010, after his sister-in-law called police, hoping they could calm him down. He had been drinking and was threatening to harm himself with a knife.
Pitzer had said the confrontation was the most fearful moment of his career. He said Tenorio was walking toward him, with a blank look on his face, carrying a knife and ignoring commands to drop it.
Attorneys for Tenorio, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, have said events unfolded so quickly that he didn’t comprehend, or have time to comply with, officers’ shouted, conflicting commands.