Albuquerque cops' mistrial fuels anti-police sentiment

The hung jury that resulted in last week's mistrial of two Albuquerque cops charged with the 2014 shooting death of a homeless man has spurred fresh accusations that police nationwide are using deadly force with impunity.

An Albuquerque District Court jury voted 9-3, with three jurors strenuously advocating for a guilty verdict against former Albuquerque Police officers Dominic Perez and Keith Sandy in the shooting death of James Boyd.

At of the Bernalillo County Courthouse, where the verdict was read the day before, some 50 demonstrators expressed anger at the decision.

“Kill killer cops,” were among the chants heard during the demonstration that eventually blocked traffic and had a brief tense showdown with three bus loads of deputies from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office in full riot gear. The marchers ultimately moved on to other locations in downtown Albuquerque where APD kept a close watch, even supporting the march by diverting traffic. There were no reports of injuries or arrests.

“It is very rare for police to be charged with murder and the fact that even three jurors found them guilty says a lot,” says Sayrah, a demonstrator who refused to give her last name. “Jurors are reluctant to convict cops.”

Arthur Bell and Terence Green represented Black Ops and said the tone for future trials of police involved in fatal shootings is already set.

"Police will see the consequences are the same- get indicted but not convicted,” Bell says.

Standing off to the side were two women holding signs and balloons in support of the police and even had fake blood splattered on their feet by demonstrators.

“When a police officer tells you to drop your weapon, you drop it,” says Lavona Linson. “This will set a precedent nationwide if police officers are going to be convicted then they will fear to do their jobs.”

Experts in criminology see incidents such as Albuquerque and Baltimore’s lack of convictions in the Freddie Gray case as harbingers of future trials, however in August a Virginia police officer, Stephen Rankin, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the April 2015 shooting death of unarmed African-American man William Chapman. But even with the conviction which carried a sentence of up to 10 years, the jury only recommended two and a half years.

Philip Stinson, associate professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has been tracking arrests and adjudications of police charged with questionable use of deadly force and the social impact these incidents are having.

“We will continue to see unrest and disenfranchisement because now people of all walks of life are paying attention to police violence and, more specifically, fatal police shootings,” Stinson says. “This has always been a problem, but until around the time of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014, most people – including the media – weren’t paying attention. “

Stephen Handleman, Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York, and editor of The Crime Report, sees the era of real-time information gathering by citizens as a double edged sword.

    "We've entered the era of 'citizen journalism,' where traditional media has begun to play a secondary role, as an echo chamber for social media,” says Hendelman. “A four-second video clip taken on an iphone too often replaces the hard work of checking accuracy and context--and obviously can make life difficult for prosecutors and juries.”

Handelman says the the plus side is that many of these officer-involved shootings would otherwise never have come to light without it. And it has made reporters--and the general public--aware of questionable policing practices that have too often ignored."

Stinson went on to tell that what used to be considered a local or regional news story is now more often a national or international news story.  People are demanding police accountability.

“Now people of all walks of life are paying closer attention and the national spotlight is now putting increased pressure on prosecutors to look closer at the incidents.

Stinson has found that since 2005, 77 police officers have been charged with shooting a suspect while on duty with either murder or manslaughter with 26 convicted, 13 with a guilty plea and 13 with a jury verdict.

“It is unusual to have this much activity,” Stinson said of the number of incidents resulting in indictments against cops.

Stinson was quick to say that while the numbers may appear staggering, many of the cases where deadly force was applied was justified. He said the use of technology such as body cameras has had an impact.

In 2015, 18 officers were charged with either murder or manslaughter, and 11 so far in 2016.

Stinson cautioned that because of the sample size he wouldn’t categorize this as statistically significant rise in indictments.

“We need more years of data to see if there is a trend of more officers being charged.,” Stinson says.

According to Stinson, with the ever present smartphone videos, it is possible that more officers will be charged each year moving forward, but sees little evidence of that resulting in any seismic shift so far.

The consequences of this increased scrutiny on policing has resulted in what are calling the “Ferguson Effect” whereby aggressive policing has taken a back seat to self-preservation.

“I do not believe there to be a widespread “Ferguson Effect,” Stinson says.

FBI Director James Comey has staunchly defended his position that police are reluctant to aggressively enforce the law and has the numbers to back it up.

According to a Major Cities Chiefs Association survey, in the first three months of 2016, homicides increased 9 percent in the largest 63 cities and nonfatal shootings were up 21 percent. Chicago has seen a 60 percent increase in homicides this year compared to last year and a 95 percent bump since 2014, or post-Ferguson.

And the concern is that, even the perception, of lack of criminal accountability, will perpetuate this trend.

Stinson presented a pragmatic assessment of the issue by acknowledging that policing is violent. About 1,000 people are shot and killed by on-duty police offices in this country every year most of which are found to be legally justified.

“Police are trained to kill if they feel as if their life is threatened,” said Albuquerque police supporter Linson. “If people wouldn’t argue with police and just do what they are told these incidents wouldn’t happen. Police aren’t here to kill people.”