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Justice Department Investigates Use Of Force Among Albuquerque Police

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are 26 police departments around the country under some kind of scrutiny from the Justice Department. In this part of the program, we're going to hear in depth about one of them - the Albuquerque P.D. The main issue in Albuquerque is not race or racial profiling; it's the use of force. Police have shot scores of people over the last five years, many of them fatally. In a few minutes, we'll hear from NPR's Kelly McEvers about the tension in the community over that. But first, Rita Daniels, of member station KUNM, begins our coverage with a story that highlights the issue that the city is struggling with.

RITA DANIELS, BYLINE: The Albuquerque Police Department gained national attention earlier this year when James Boyd, a homeless man, was camping illegally on the outskirts of town. Someone complained, called 9-1-1 and before long there were 41 officers on the scene. After a three-hour standoff, footage from a cop's helmet cam shows Boyd finally agreeing to go with them. But then officers fire a flash grenade while a police dog rushes the scene. Cops yell at Boyd to get on the ground. He pulls out two small knives from his pockets and they shoot him six times. Boyd dies. Then the chief of police, Gordon Eden, told reporters that officers did the right thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORDON EDEN: Do I believe it was a justified shooting? Yes. If you follow case law Garner versus Tennessee there was a directed threat to an officer.

DANIELS: Garner versus Tennessee was a Supreme Court case back in the '80s that ruled an officer could use deadly force if the suspect was thought to pose a serious threat. Eden later said he regretted those comments but Boyd's death led to protests in the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We are all James Boyd. We are all James Boyd.

DANIELS: Marchers flooded onto the freeway, shutting it down and things got tense. The police department brought in SWAT teams, dressed in riot gear and used tear gas. Protesters were demanding that the police chief resign, that the mayor be fired and that what they called killer cops be charged with murder. The U.S. Justice Department had already been investigating the Albuquerque Police Department for two years. Shortly after Boyd was killed, it released a report saying it found a pattern of excessive and fatal use of force. Now the Feds are negotiating with the city about what reform will look like. The police department says it's already revamping training.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE WOLF: We will do the best we can with verbal instruction but if you have to go hands on, that might be.

DANIELS: Joe Wolf runs the city's training academy and says now all cops are required to take a course about how to deal with suspects with mental illness. It's an approach that favors talking over drawing your weapon.

WOLF: I'm not going to kid you, there's been a lot of resistance here. Took me a long time to win over the training crew because it's a philosophical change from what they're used to.

DANIELS: Wolf says he wants his officers to be calm and confident, not cocky and overbearing. Molly Moran is with the U.S. Justice Department and says officer safety comes first but force isn't always the best practice.

MOLLY MORAN: There are any degree of ways of using force. And lethal force or even slightly less than lethal force might not always be the best approach.

DANIELS: A final consent decree that will spell out exactly what reform is going to look like is expected in the coming weeks. For NPR News, I'm Rita Daniels in Albuquerque. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.