ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – You’ve probably seen the grainy surveillance video: a uniformed Albuquerque police officer lands a dozen or so kicks to the head of a suspected car thief while another officer holds the man down. After the two cops clamp on the handcuffs, they take a moment to commemorate their dirty work with a celebratory chest bump.
Watch it again.
Is that really what happened?
In late 2011, the video hit the local media, then went viral. The two officers, John Doyle and Robert Woolever, became the poster boys for the festering excessive force problem within the Albuquerque Police Department.
That problem brought a federal investigation of APD that concluded last month. The United States Department of Justice used numerous specific instances of overly aggressive police officers’ unconstitutional use of force against citizens — and APD leaders’ failure to reign them in — to make its case that APD had lost control.
But there was one specific example that was noticeably absent from the DOJ’s damning 46-page report on the troubled Police Department.
Watch the video again.
Did it deserve a place alongside a raft of questionable fatal police shootings and other incidents, including the time an officer set a man on fire with a Taser?
From the perspective of top APD officials, most notably former Chief Ray Schultz, Doyle and Woolever had participated in an egregious violation of Nicholas Blume’s civil rights. Schultz fired the two officers and even tried to get the FBI to investigate the case. For two and a half years, Schultz and others at APD held up the video — and their handling of the case — as evidence that the police administration was tough on excessive force.
Based on what is — and isn’t — in the DOJ report, the feds clearly disagreed.
Doyle and Woolever, who broke their long public silence in a far-reaching interview with KRQE News 13 a few days before the DOJ released its report, said there’s a reason for that disagreement.
“Use of force never looks good,” Doyle said in the interview. “It never looks good — any kind of force … But it is a very unique situation, and being that way, this was the only method that I could employ at the time …”
The two former officers have 30-plus years of law enforcement experience between them. They concede that what’s shown in the video looks bad — in a vacuum. After years of not discussing the case, they spent more than an hour with News 13 laying out the context they say justifies their actions in the early morning hours of Feb. 13, 2011.
Doyle and Woolever described their traffic stop of Blume. They talked about his high-speed flight from their patrol car. And they described in detail the foot pursuit that led to the underground parking garage at the Barcelona Suites near the intersection of Louisiana and Lomas NE.
They addressed the kicks, which Doyle said weren’t aimed at Blume’s head. Instead, he said, they were “distraction techniques” meant to keep a resisting Blume off guard as Woolever tried to handcuff him. The kicks struck Blume in the left arm and shoulder. Only a few of them glanced off and struck Blume’s head.
They addressed the “chest bump,” saying it never happened.
“I go over, and I’m like, ‘Robert are you ok?'” Doyle said. “I walk over and that’s where I lean over, Rob had stopped as I’m still walking. I grab him by the arm and as I grab him by the arm, he turns to me and I say, ‘Are you OK?’ I went over and checked on him.”
They addressed the assertion by APD brass that the incident was “caught on video.” Instead, they said, Doyle asked the manager of the hotel where the incident took place to gather any surveillance video from the parking garage where the officers arrested Blume and make sure it got to APD supervisors.
Doyle and Woolever, who are now in varying stages of trying to get their jobs back at APD, say Schultz and the department used underhanded tactics and distortions through multiple investigations to arrive at a conclusion that the officers used excessive force on Blume, then lied about it in the aftermath.
They said Schultz used them as sacrificial lambs with a particular goal in mind: to give the impression that APD brass was tough on officers who used excessive force.
“Information was either withheld, or information was fabricated for a purpose,” Doyle said. “And that purpose being, I believe, to avoid a DOJ investigation and also to have the citizens, in a way, think this was worse than it was.”
Schultz did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Woolever said then-APD Internal Affairs Sgt. Jason Peck offered him a deal: alter his original version of the events and lie about where Blume’s hands were during the incident to implicate Doyle for excessive use of force, and Woolever would be able to keep his job.
Peck suggested that Woolever could claim “combat amnesia” and say that Blume’s hands were on top of his head, rather than under his body, as Doyle kicked Blume, Woolever said. Changing his story, Peck told Woolever, meant the difference between being a target of APD’s investigation of the incident and being a witness in it.
“I was given an ultimatum by Sgt Peck,” Woolever said. “I had to lie and keep my job or tell the truth and be fired. And by lying I’d be betraying a fellow officer. It’s just not going to happen.”
APD refused to make Peck available for an interview, citing his work as an undercover officer. News 13 pointed out that Peck spoke on camera for a story late last year, and News 13 obscured his face. Still, APD refused.
Woolever told News 13 he also received a warning that he needed to change his story or be fired from then-Albuquerque Police Officers Association president Joey Sigala.
In their interview with News 13, the former officers pointed to differences between the way Schultz publicly discussed officer-involved shooting cases — trotting out the criminal history of men shot by police at news conferences and even employing props such as replica guns and an AK-47 — and the way he downplayed and omitted information about their arrest of Blume.
“When you look back and compare our case with what was released at these press conferences, you can see it,” Doyle said. “In Nicholas Blume’s case, in our case, there was no press release where the chief or deputy chiefs stood up and showed Nicholas Blume’s path of criminal history.
“They didn’t stand there and show a slide show or a photo presentation of the weapon Nicholas Blume had in his car. They didn’t show a photo of the crash scene, they didn’t show photos, they didn’t show his criminal history that was omitted if not hidden purposefully.”
In fact, Blume had a history of violent felony convictions. He had done prison time. He was one of Albuquerque’s most wanted criminals and at the time Doyle and Woolever encountered him — police had several warrants for his arrest, and he was a suspect in a homicide.
Blume was armed with knives, and there was a loaded gun in the stolen truck he had been driving. And there was a second suspect in the vehicle with him, a woman who the officers were worried about throughout their encounter with Blume.
“That night, for me using that technique, using strikes like that and using kicks was my only option,” Doyle said. “Because with my partner on top of him like that, because of the fact that I’m on the radio, because I want to stay up, because if I go down to the ground with him, then we’re both on the ground, and I lose the vantage point of us rolling around and being ambushed by a second suspect that could have came through that opening there which was right outside and shot one of us.”
Last month, Doyle and Woolever went back to the Barcelona Suites with News 13 for the first since the incident.
“A little emotional,” Woolever said that day. “It was a big part of my life. It took a big chunk of my life. It’s a little emotional to be back here.”
The whole ordeal, Woolever said, came out of the blue. That’s because an initial investigation into the incident, conducted by then-APD Commander Murray Conrad, determined that Doyle and Woolever were justified.
Conrad told News 13 that then-Deputy Chief Beth Paiz initially agreed with his findings.
But the video eventually made its way to Schultz’s desk. He ordered a new Internal Affairs investigation, led by Peck. Schultz used that investigation to fire Doyle and Woolever.
In addition, Schultz ordered his Criminal Intelligence Unit sergeant, Ryan Buckner, to launch a criminal investigation of the kicking incident.
Documents Doyle provided to News 13 show inconsistencies between verbatim statements Doyle gave Buckner and the report Buckner wrote.
For example, Buckner asked Doyle how many times he kicked Blume. Doyle answered that he had thrown more than five kicks. “More than 10?” Buckner asked. Doyle replied: “It might have been.” Buckner never asked Doyle where he kicked Blume.
By the time that exchange made it to Buckner’s report, it read like this: “I asked Doyle if he kicked Blume in the head more than 10 times and he said ‘it might have been.'”
Buckner used the word “appears” more than 10 times in the report, referring to the video of the incident. Among those instances was Buckner’s characterization of a “celebratory chest bump.”
Doyle and Woolever both told Buckner they hadn’t celebrated after handcuffing Blume.