ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Keith Sandy wanted to fall on his sword.
It was early April, and Sandy, an Albuquerque police detective, was less than two years into his dream assignment with the elite Repeat Offender Project (ROP) team, whose methods Sandy cherished and whose leaders he idolized.
There are forces threatening all of that, including whispers of a short conversation caught on tape, so he looked for a way out.
Sandy and SWAT team officer Dominique Perez had each fired three shots from their modified M4 assault-style rifles at James Boyd, a man with a history of mental illness who had been camping in a restricted area of the Foothills northeast of town.
Boyd, who carried two small knives, had been engaged in a four-hour shouting match with more than 40 police officers on March 16. Sandy and Perez ended it by shooting him in the back as he was turning away from them. The homeless man died at a city hospital.
A week later, APD released video from Perez’s helmet camera that for the first time gave the public a clear view of something that has happened more than three dozen times here since 2010: city police shooting someone. The video appears to show Sandy firing first, then Perez.
It pressed the collective nerve of families of men shot by police and others in the city. That nerve had been fraying for many years.
The video, together with Police Chief Gorden Eden’s pronouncement that the shooting was justified, prompted angry marches through the streets in the largest series of police-reform demonstrations here in a generation. There were bullhorns, a symbolic casket, tears and tear gas canisters.
Specifics of Sandy’s troubled history in law enforcement — fired from another agency over a timecard-fraud scandal, the bungling of two high-profile cases in Albuquerque — started to emerge. The community focused its rage on Sandy, and Perez began to fade into the background.
Recently released documents, new interviews and fresh analysis of multiple APD incidents — including the most recent shooting in July — suggest that, despite a sweeping federal investigation and new leadership, some of the department’s more entrenched patterns persist.
Details learned during more than a decade of reporting on APD shed light on the inner workings of the ROP team, where Sandy was assigned, other specialized squads and the way city police investigate themselves in use of force cases involving elite units.
In the days after the Boyd shooting, Sandy and Perez went separately to a plain, two-story city building at 6th and Silver Downtown for interviews with APD Detective Geoffrey Stone, who had been assigned the criminal investigation. Like most with APD, they were non-confrontational interviews in which Stone allowed the officers to justify their use of deadly force by explaining the threat Boyd and his small knives presented against a heavily armed phalanx of police.
The breezy nature of the questions from Stone notwithstanding, Sandy had plenty of backup in the room: Luis Robles, an attorney with years of experience in police shooting cases, and Detective Zack Stephenson, the central figure of the APD ROP team and Sandy’s friend and mentor.
Whether Sandy was aware of it at the time or not, there was yet another layer of comfort built in: Stone’s investigation, once complete, would be handed over to District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s Office, which has never charged a police officer in a shooting.
Then things got tougher.
On March 28, less than two weeks after Boyd died, the FBI took the unprecedented step of announcing a federal criminal investigation of the shooting.
The day before, Sandy had gotten a call from a fellow law enforcement officer about a dashcam recording. He had been tipped off that it contained an exchange between Sandy and State Police Sgt. Chris Ware during which Sandy made a comment about shooting Boyd in the “pecker” hours before he and Perez gunned Boyd down.
Potentially, it was explosive evidence that investigators might try to use to prove malicious intent in the Boyd shooting.
So on April 7, Sandy went in for a second interview with Stone, the criminal investigator. He needed to explain the tape away. Stone let him.
“When I came in here today, it was just to fall on my sword because that’s what I’ve been told,” Sandy told Stone, according to a transcript of the interview obtained by KRQE News 13. “But I don’t recall. I don’t remember saying it.”
Much has been made during the past week and a half of whether Sandy referenced Boyd’s genitals. On the surface, that’s what the majority of Stone’s 34-minute interview with Sandy was about.
Less has been made of what it says about APD culture that a detective in one of the department’s most prized assignments was describing his plans to use force against a man he hadn’t even seen yet. The cardinal rule in police use of force: it is always supposed to be dictated by the actions of the suspect. By his own admission, Sandy had not even been briefed about the unfolding situation in the foothills when he made the comment to Sgt. Ware.
Stone’s interviews of Sandy raise several questions about the integrity of his investigation into the shooting.
For example, there was a five-minute gap during which Stone turned off his recorder. What was said?
More importantly: Who leaked to Sandy, one of the targets of the investigation, the details of what could be a damaging piece of evidence? And why, as in so many other APD interviews for police shooting cases, did Stone appear so incurious, accommodating and non-adversarial about the leak and other matters?
One of Sandy’s closest allies at APD was allowed to accompany him to the first of the two criminal interviews — a luxury not afforded to average people and, generally, not even to most patrol cops. Why is that? It is unclear whether Stephenson was present at the second interview, and that raises yet another question: Who was the “unidentified male,” as labelled in the transcript, at the second interview?
News 13 has been trying to reach Sandy since March to talk about the Boyd shooting. The detective has been on paid leave to the tune of more than $25,000 since the shooting. The closest Sandy has come to responding was when he forwarded one of our emails to a department spokeswoman. She told News 13 not to contact officers directly.
Last week, Sandy’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.
Chief Eden, during an interview last week, said he first learned about the dashcam tape a few weeks after the shooting. He said APD made efforts to ensure that whoever was aware of its existence went directly to the FBI. Eden declined to comment on what’s shown in the transcript, specifically that details of his department’s criminal investigation had been passed on to Sandy. The chief said he hadn’t seen the whole case file.
Beyond the Boyd case, Sandy offered to Stone an unsolicited look at his deep desire to join the ROP team. He spoke in almost reverential terms about the group and Stephenson, who has shot at least two people and been involved in several high-profile blunders as an officer.
Simultaneously, Sandy painted a picture of an insular, self-important group of officers that is partial to dangerous, high-risk “vehicle-blocking maneuvers” and even has its own safe word, “China,” for when the team’s dark banter and gallows humor get too heavy even for the ROP guys.
His remarks provided rare insight into an area of APD that most people probably aren’t even aware of. Despite its vaunted reputation internally, the Repeat Offender Project team seldom makes the news, beyond the occasional high-profile arrest or gaffe.
ROP detectives work primarily in plain clothes, though they aren’t typically deep-cover officers. As the name of the unit suggests, they’re supposed to go after the worst of Albuquerque’s worst repeat offenders.
Three former APD officers who spoke with News 13 say the ROP team — and the way its officers have been allowed to set themselves apart from the rest of the department — has played an integral role in perpetuating the aggressive, too-quick-to-the-trigger culture that led the U.S. Department of Justice to conclude that APD has a deeply-rooted pattern of violating citizens’ civil rights.
Justice Department investigators did not name the ROP team specifically in their blistering, 46-page report of findings on APD.
However, a News 13 review of APD records and interviews shows the team has been involved in a handful of chaotic incidents that resulted in shootings. In those cases, police response comprised a mix-and-match band of officers from ROP, other specialized units and the SWAT team.
Some of those were incidents the DOJ singled out as examples of APD’s lack of organizational control, tactical planning and accountability. Other incidents bear striking similarities to those the Justice Department pointed to when describing a “culture of aggression” among the police here.
Further, a News 13 review of available records shows that a handful of officers currently assigned to ROP has accounted for 11 percent of APD’s 75 shootings since 2005. Some of the shootings took place while the officers were assigned to other specialized squads, including the SWAT team. That group of officers makes up about half a percent of the department’s sworn force. Some of the shootings have been controversial. Some have either directly or tangentially resulted in six-figure payouts to settle lawsuits.
Through interviews and searches of news archives, News 13 also has found a swinging door from the SWAT team to the ROP team, with officers often transferring to the latter after a tour in one or more of the tactical units.
News 13 sent a request to APD for an interview on the topics covered in this story. Department spokeswoman Janet Blair early Tuesday afternoon said in an email that she was “working on it.” No one from the department responded after that.
Also, News 13 has sought public records from APD to get a more complete picture of the ROP team’s use of deadly force. The department has, in some cases, flat-out ignored those requests. In other cases, Police Department representatives have refused to provide information.
Blair even refused to hand over an APD roster that would show a full list of who is currently assigned to the ROP team.
Regardless of who’s working there today, many longtime APD observers have strong opinions about the ROP team phenomenon.
“I think of it like a fight club,” said civil rights attorney Shannon Kennedy, who has won several high-dollar judgments against the city for police misconduct and is now suing on behalf of Boyd’s family. “They truly are cowboys. There’s no supervision, and there’s no chain of command. The ROP team does whatever it wants.”
The ROP guys had been looking for Jeremy Robertson for two days back in January.
The 33-year-old stole a pickup truck and used it to ram an undercover APD vehicle before driving through a median and escaping, according to ROP’s version of events.
APD got a warrant and sent ROP to do what ROP does.
The next day, Sandy, Stephenson, Detective Russ Carter and others tracked Robertson down and followed him into Rio Rancho, out of their jurisdiction.
Carter, at least, might have had a moment’s pause before he and the others headed out of Albuquerque city limits on the trail of a suspect.
It had been his fatal shooting of Gary Atencio on Laguna Pueblo land in 2012 that prompted APD to yank the reins on its officers’ out-of jurisdiction involvement in critical incidents. But the ROP team was heavily involved in the chaotic, violent scene that played out along Southern Boulevard on the morning of Jan. 9.
According to police reports:
The ROP crew crept up on Robertson as he was sifting through a trash bin in a Walgreen’s parking lot. He darted back toward his Infiniti sedan and jumped inside. Two ROP detectives chased him on foot, smashed out his window and reached inside to apprehend Robertson.
That’s when Carter opened fire. He blasted off four rounds at Robertson’s car which, by then was moving in reverse with two ROP detectives still reaching inside.
The shots were well within APD policy at the time, although the department has since joined the national law enforcement consensus and banned the practice of allowing officers to shoot at moving vehicles.
In any case, the shots didn’t stop Robertson who, by that point in the encounter, had backed into a Rio Rancho police cruiser. He threw it in drive and started to take off.
That’s when Keith Sandy jumped in.
The ROP team detective drove his unmarked, department-issued truck headlong toward the Infiniti, crashing into it and sending it backwards into a landscaped area off the Walgreen’s parking lot. Robertson kept driving, striking the Rio Rancho police car again. Carter kept shooting, this time puncturing a third tire.
Now the encounter erupted out onto westbound Southern Boulevard. Sandy sped after Robertson, who, driving on just one good tire, crossed the center line into oncoming traffic.
Sandy rammed Robertson again. He hit him at high speed and sent the Infiniti careening into the back half of someone’s pickup truck. Robertson’s vehicle wound up on property belonging to a Rio Rancho apartment complex. He got out and ran. The ROP guys caught him and arrested him.
A photograph published in the Rio Rancho Observer from the day of the encounter shows Robertson, with what appears to be blood on his head, sitting on the road in handcuffs with uniformed officers and medical staff nearby. He was not taken to a hospital.
There is no indication any of the ROP detectives was disciplined for the encounter, despite apparent policy violations that occurred while the team pursued a suspected car thief, who did not have a weapon.
Robertson went to jail on charges of aggravated assault on police officers and aggravated fleeing. A judge in Sandoval County released him on his own recognizance on May 5 — a decision that later drew the ire of an APD deputy chief.
By June 18, there was a warrant out for his arrest for violating the probation he’d been sentenced to on a stolen vehicle charge.
That warrant led to the final encounter between Robertson and ROP.
By July 22, Sandy had been on leave for four months as the Boyd investigations carried on. But his ROP brethren, according to APD, were surveilling Robertson that morning because the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives believed he illegally had a gun.
ROP lost sight of him, but ATF agents tracked him down again that afternoon, according to APD. The agents called Stephenson and Carter back in and, in turn, the detectives called their former SWAT teammates Anthony Sedler and Ramon Ornelas to the area as backup.
It wasn’t a full SWAT call-out. Rather, it was the latest example of an ad hoc team of officers from multiple elite units responding to what had the potential to be a volatile encounter.
Robertson drove a stolen van to a crowded gas station near Eubank and Central NE and went inside, according to APD.
It appears he may have recognized one of the ROP detectives, who were in plain clothes, and he took off running across the gas station parking lot. As he fled, according to APD, he reached into his waistband for a gun. Within a dozen or so steps, surveillance video shows a detective unsuccessfully trying to stun Robertson with a Taser.
Detectives yelled at him to drop the gun as they chased him across eight lanes of midday traffic on Central Avenue and into an open field.
Meanwhile, the two SWAT officers, Sedler and Ornelas, arrived in separate unmarked police SUVs.
Video surveillance footage released by APD shows Sedler and Ornelas take positions near a Dumpster at the north end of the field. As Robertson ran by, they yelled at him to drop his gun. The officers drew a bead on Robertson with their rifles. As Robertson was jumping a fence, the two SWAT officers shot him.
He became the 37th person shot by APD since 2010, the 27th to die. His family is suing the city, alleging wrongful death and violations of Robertson’s constitutional rights.
His One Goal
By 2004, Sandy was several years into his law enforcement career with the New Mexico State Police. That was the year he decided.
“I remember meeting guys from the ROP unit in 2004 and helping them out in Los Lunas, and from the day I helped them out, that’s all I wanted,” he told Stone during their second interview on April 7.
There would be hurdles, but he’d get his chance.
In 2007, Sandy found himself at the center of a scandal that could have left him with a criminal record and, perhaps, placed his goal out of reach.
In addition to his day job with the State Police, Sandy was moonlighting for Wackenhut Services, Inc., the massive global security company. Wackenhut was contracting with the U.S. Department of Energy to teach military-style police tactics at DOE’s National Training Center in the East Mountains.
Sandy encountered numerous APD officers at the academy. Two sources with first-hand knowledge told News 13 that more than a dozen APD officers who have matriculated through the SWAT, ROP and other specialized units spent time at the remote facility to receive training that has its roots in preparing soldiers for America’s wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But there was a problem: like his fellow State Police officers — Chris Luttrell, Sean Wallace and Johnny Salas — who also were teaching classes for Wackenhut, Sandy was being paid by State Police to attend those same classes.
State Police brass forwarded a case against the four officers to DA Brandenburg’s office for a possible timecard-fraud prosecution. She decided against it, citing as her reason in May 2007 that there had been no intent to commit a crime because the officers’ supervisors and Wackenhut knew about the practice.
Wallace resigned from State Police. Sandy, Luttrell and Salas were fired. All four quickly found new jobs at the Albuquerque Police Department, which was in the middle of a frenzied push to swell its ranks to 1,000 officers and beyond.
By July 2007, Wallace was enrolled at the APD Academy and well on his way to working the streets. As for Sandy and the other two, then-Deputy Chief Mike Castro made a promise during an interview that month with News 13: “They do not carry guns. They are not going to be badged. They’re civilian employees. They’ll be collecting evidence.”
Sandy told Stone a very different story.
“When I came to APD, you know, that was — they asked me what I wanted,” he said. “I wanted to go to ROP. (Instead) I went to Vice. They asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘To go to ROP.'”
The journey would be short. The Vice unit, like ROP, falls within APD’s Special Investigations Division — home to what one former officer called “a bunch of mini-SWAT teams.”
In fact, all four former State Police officers were given badges, guns and coveted spots at APD.
Sandy spent several years in Vice and, by the summer of 2011, he had the lead in two headline-grabbing cases that, on their faces, could have been career-makers.
Instead, they fizzled like an old wick on a dud bottlerocket.
In July 2011, Sandy and his partner used thin evidence to arrest and charge Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch, the chief criminal judge of the Bernalillo County Judicial District, with raping a prostitute. Based on a video detectives purchased on the black market and assumptions from Sandy and his partner, the case was problematic from the start.
That didn’t stop Sandy from sending Stephenson and the ROP team to frog-march Murdoch, who uses crutches because of a childhood bout with polio, out of his chambers.
Murdoch was forced to permanently resign from the bench or risk losing his pension.
Two years later, just days before the Boyd shooting, Santa Fe DA Angela “Spence” Pacheco announced there would be no prosecution. In a March interview with News 13, she described the case as “terrible” and “a mess.” Sources have told News 13 that the feeling in the Santa Fe DA’s Office was that Sandy and his fellow detectives likely didn’t even have probable cause to arrest the judge.
Less than a month after the Murdoch arrest, another of Sandy’s cases stunned the city when his undercover camera captured then-APD officer Matt Kindle in a motel room, with his penis exposed outside his police uniform, discussing sex-for-hire with a female prostitute.
In all, Sandy and APD charged Kindle with eight counts, six of them felonies. That case evaporated, too, as Kindle’s legal team accused detectives of entrapping Kindle and lying to the grand jury that indicted him.
Kindle pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count and received a 12-month conditional discharge. That means the lone charge left from Sandy’s investigation has disappeared from Kindle’s record.
As far as APD was concerned, Sandy didn’t do anything wrong in the investigations of either Murdoch or Kindle. As the fall of 2012 approached, and the cases limped toward their inglorious ends, Sandy was about to get the promotion he had always wanted.
The ROP team beckoned.
A Sunday Morning Phone Call
Several things happen when a police officer shoots someone in Albuquerque. The officer is assigned a “buddy officer” at the scene — someone with whom the otherwise sequestered officer is allowed to converse. The shooting officer is placed on paid leave until a panel at APD determines he or she is fit to come back to active duty. An Internal Affairs investigation, aimed at determining whether the shooting was within the department’s use-or-force rules, is launched. And a criminal investigation, of which the officer who pulled the trigger is the target, begins.
The criminal investigations are governed by a memo signed in 2004 by DA Brandenburg, then-APD Chief Gil Gallegos, then-Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White and then-State Police Chief Carlos Maldonado. It created a multi-jurisdictional team to investigate police shootings here, with representatives from each agency assigned. The agency that employs the shooting officer is always designated the lead agency, the memo states.
Police investigating themselves in shooting cases isn’t novel. Nor is it unique to Albuquerque. Several police practices experts who spoke with News 13 said designating the shooter’s home agency as the lead for an investigation is not, by itself, problematic.
However, the experts said, if a police department is troubled, mired in a climate of controversy with eroded public trust, the practice can both send the wrong message to citizens and lead to concerns about directed, shoddy investigations that aren’t designed to get to the truth.
So the 2004 memo is how APD Detective Geoffrey Stone came to be the primary inquisitor for APD Detective Keith Sandy in the shooting death of James Matthew Boyd.
The first interview, conducted two days after the shooting, was unremarkable. Without offering any resistance, Stone just allowed Sandy to explain what he remembered about his role in the four-hour encounter.
It is impossible to imagine the police allowing an everyday citizen who is the subject of a criminal investigation to have someone besides his or her attorney present during questioning.
However, that’s exactly what happened for Sandy.
The ubiquitous reading of the Miranda rights — “You have the right to remain silent … ” — includes nothing about a support system or a buddy. Police officers generally are read their Miranda rights before criminal interviews in shooting cases, although they are not placed under arrest.
Stone read Sandy his rights as Stephenson, Sandy’s mentor and fellow officer, sat nearby during the first interview on March 18. Because the interview wasn’t video recorded, it’s impossible to tell whether Stephenson played a role.
Kennedy, the civil rights attorney, has reviewed the interview transcripts as part of her lawsuit in the Boyd case.
“I think it’s an extension of the buddy officer system,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s inappropriate to give officers special treatment like that. They are not treated like ordinary citizens.”
Sandy and other specialized unit officers appear not to be treated like ordinary APD officers after shootings, either.
On Brandenburg’s website, her reviews of 13 police shooting cases — 11 by APD and two by BCSO — are posted, along with all the associated documents. News 13 checked the criminal interviews in each one.
In neither of the BCSO shootings did any law enforcement personnel accompany the deputy who had shot someone to the interview; and in none of the six APD cases that involved a patrol officer did another officer go along to the interview.
But in each of the five shootings by officers assigned to specialized units, those officers had company in the form of another officer. Moreover, each of the accompanying officers also was assigned to a specialized unit — usually to the same unit as the shooting officer. And in each case, both the officer who pulled the trigger and his “buddy officer” were veterans of the military-style training at the DOE’s National Training Center.
Such was the case with Sandy and Stephenson.
“The bottom line is, those SWAT guys, those ROP guys, those other (Special Investigations Division) guys get it different,” said a second former APD officer, who spoke condition of anonymity because he now works for another law enforcement agency and didn’t want to publicly criticize APD while wearing the badge of his new employer. “The brass has always kind of let them do what they want. You’re seeing it with those interviews.”
It is unknown whether Sandy had a buddy officer with him at his second interview with Stone on April 7. That’s because there was an “unidentified male” in the room, according to the interview transcript. On that occasion, Stone did not read Sandy his Miranda rights.
Regardless, Sandy made an admission during the April 7 conversation that multiple people interviewed for this story said was even more troubling than a buddy officer sitting in the room.
Significant evidence in Stone’s criminal investigation had been leaked to Sandy.
Midway through the interview, Stone stopped the recording for five minutes, then restarted the tape, according to the transcript. He mentioned that the two had spoken off the record, and he wanted Sandy to “kind of tell me everything that you just told me a second ago.”
In what followed, Sandy told Stone he had received phone calls from other people who said there was a tape on which Sandy made comments about wanting to shoot Boyd in the genitals.
“I’ve heard it from other people saying that I did say that, that it is on the tape,” he said.
Stone asked whether those who had told Sandy about the recording worked in law enforcement. Sandy said they did. Stone asked whether Sandy had the impression the people had heard the recording themselves. Sandy said he did not have that impression.
Stone asked when Sandy first heard about the recording. Sandy said it had been on a Sunday morning, a week and a half before the interview, while he was drinking coffee and sitting on the edge of his bed.
Stone let it go at that. He never asked for the names of the officers.
A few moments later, Stone was on to a different topic. He asked a question typical of APD interviews in police shooting cases — one for which the answer was self-evident.
“When the shooting happened, did you ever have an intent to go up there and shoot Boyd in the genital area?” he asked.
“No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” came Sandy’s reply.
Kennedy questioned the integrity of the way APD conducts investigations of its own officers.
“Why are they not interrogated?” she asked. “There is clearly not a search for the truth. Typically, it is a profoundly passive exchange of information. And in this case, specifically, how could (Stone) not ask who told Sandy about the recording? It is vital to know who is involved in this game of telephone during which critical evidence is being discussed and exchanged between officers.”
‘There’s no room for mistakes in ROP’
For more than 20 years, Albuquerque’s ROP team had a symbol: a hangman’s noose. The team plastered the ominous insignia all over its wanted posters, internal memos and other documents.
Symbolically, the ROP team and the rest of the Special Investigations Division have been a band apart. They also have kept themselves at a distance physically from both command staff and the rank and file.
At the ROP office, in Special Investigations headquarters near the Albuquerque International Sunport, there was a large noose painted on the wall.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2012, when this reporter asked then-Chief Ray Schultz whether a hangman’s noose was an appropriate symbol for a unit at a police department that was at the time under federal investigation for use of excessive force, that Schultz vowed to scrub it from ROP letterhead and office walls. It’s unclear whether that has happened.
Noose or none, Sandy took “a tremendous amount of pride … being in ROP,” he told Stone.
“I would never do anything to shine a bad light or disgrace that unit or Sergeant (Lou) Heckroth,” Sandy said. “Those guys, Lou Heckroth, Zack Stephenson, those guys that have been in ROP and — all the guys that were there long before me … and just — those guys are always — I’ve looked up to them and idolized them.”
Stephenson is the ROP team’s protagonist, the principal character around whom all things revolve, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the inner workings of the unit.
In 2000, he was recognized as APD’s uniformed officer of the year. He’s been honored at least twice more since then, including just last week for “performing an act that results in the saving of another’s life.” APD denied News 13 access to the awards ceremony.
Stephenson also has shot at least two people. In 2003, he became a SWAT sniper. Like Sandy, he has trained extensively at the DOE’s National Training Center, according to multiple sources.
It’s unclear when he left SWAT and went to ROP, but since he got there, Stephenson has been in the news for some unflattering business.
In May 2012, this reporter obtained a transcript of a telephone call between Stephenson and Brad Ahrensfield, a former APD officer who was convicted of obstruction of justice after he leaked details of a criminal investigation to its target. While Ahrensfield was preparing to serve his prison term, federal officials suspected him of several new crimes. Stephenson, an old friend of Ahrensfield’s, caught the case. During the phone call, Stephenson made it plain that he wasn’t seriously considering pushing forward with the case against Ahrensfield. Indeed, Ahrensfield was never charged.
Four months later, in November 2012, Stephenson was practicing his golf game at a southeast Albuquerque driving range with a fellow ROP detective. It was around quitting time, and Stephenson’s city-owned unmarked truck was sitting in the parking lot. Behind the seats and under a towel were his APD-issued assault rifle, body armor and other tactical gear. They weren’t secured, as department rules mandate.
A thief broke into the truck and made off with Stephenson’s gun and gear. Two days later, when a news story appeared about the theft, APD claimed that Sandy and other ROP detectives had recovered the gun. Stephenson wasn’t disciplined.
ROP team officers take themselves — and their assignment — extremely seriously. Sandy described it to Stone: “When I came to ROP, it was — the first thing was, ‘Welcome to ROP. Mistakes now cease to exist.’ That’s the rule the very first day, that’s the very first thing that was told to me. And that’s something that’s been told to ROP guys for — since the beginning.”
Sandy told Stone that mistakes aren’t acceptable because the stakes are so high for a unit that goes after “very motivated and aggressive criminals.”
One method: The detectives often use their trucks in an aggressive, unorthodox move known as a “vehicle blocking maneuver.”
According to an article in Police Chief magazine, the maneuver includes multiple officers positioning their vehicles around a suspect’s vehicle — while still in motion — and even making bumper-to-bumper contact. The so-called “VBM” only should be used as a last resort, and only in situations in which deadly force is justified.
Sandy cited several instances in which he and other ROP detectives used it, including the January incident in Rio Rancho with Robertson. APD does not teach the maneuver to its field officers.
“We’ve numerous times done blocking maneuvers on individuals … ” Sandy said, then continued later in his interview with Stone, “There’s not room for mistakes in ROP, especially in blocks and things like that.”
One former APD officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said VBMs are unnecessary and overrated. The former officer, who had extensive experience with ROP and other Special Investigations detectives, said officers in the specialized units view their use of the maneuver as a way to set themselves apart from patrol cops.
“But they’re dangerous,” the former officer said. “And just because you call it a police tactic doesn’t make it anything more than or different from what it is: a traffic accident.”
Kennedy’s law firm in August filed a lawsuit against APD Sgt. Wallace, Sandy’s old State Police colleague, and other undercover Special Investigations officers for using a VBM in an arrest that terrorized a young family.
Kennedy said extensive use of the maneuver is evidence of a violent culture among elite detectives in this city.
“To me, it’s just the height of this narcissistic behavior that they’re out there slamming into people’s cars like this,” she said. “These guys are emboldened to engage like that, and no one is telling them that it’s wrong.”
Given that ROP uses the maneuver on crowded city streets, Sandy said in his interview with Stone, mistakes can lead to citizens getting hurt and bad guys getting away. He lamented an occasion in which he screwed up.
“When I first came to ROP, I made a mistake in a block and the guy got out and he was — it was huge, it was a big deal,” Sandy said. “And I took a lot of beating up over it from most of the guys on the team.”
He didn’t mention whether the criticism from colleagues prompted him to employ the ROP team’s “safe word,” details of which were among the more startling revelations in Sandy’s interview with Stone.
Stone had asked whether ROP detectives — working together or with SWAT, K-9 or other units — made jokes to relieve stress in high-pressure situations.
“It’s constant banter, constant joking, to the point where we even have a — we call it a safe word, where if it gets to be too much, somebody — our safe word is China,” Sandy said. “So if you say China, everybody stops making fun of you.”
Sandy didn’t specify whether anyone outside the ROP team knows what it means when one of the unit’s detectives says “China.”
Chief Eden has said he plans to include the use of safe words among specialized units as part of the Internal Affairs investigation into the Boyd shooting. That investigation, he said, began in earnest last week — once the state criminal case was handed off to the DA’s Office.
‘Bastardized by SWAT’
Dan Klein retired from the Albuquerque Police Department in 2003 at the rank of sergeant. He had served 20 years.
In the decade-plus since, he’s stayed in touch. Klein still has plenty of friends on the department, and he generally has his finger on the pulse. He’s a go-to guy for local bloggers and journalists who are looking for informed analysis of the troubled police department here.
Klein also has been an outspoken critic of the leadership of the department during the past several years. City and police administration often attempt to brush his thoughts off as the rantings of an old crank who just can’t let it go.
But something not many know about Klein is that he was one of the original eight detectives chosen, out of 40 applicants, for the first Albuquerque ROP team in September 1986.
“I’m very proud of the work that we did,” Klein said in a telephone interview. “We had eight detectives, and in that first year, we did 600 felony arrests.”
That wasn’t by accident, he said.
The team was then-Deputy Chief Joe Bowdich’s idea. Bowdich picked up the notion from another department to create a team of solid detectives dedicated to taking down career criminals. He enlisted then-Lt. Joe Polisar to help, Klein said.
Applicants submitted their past arrest and search warrants and completed cases, Klein said, then sat for a “grueling” formal interview with Bowdich and Polisar.
“They asked us: ‘Who have you put it in prison? Were you able to make it stick?” he said. “Then they made us back it up with paperwork. They asked around about us, too, whether we had the skills to testify in court.”
Once in place, the newly minted ROP team didn’t do any field work for a month, Klein said. Instead, they honed a mathematical equation by which they “ranked” repeat offenders based on what their propensity to reoffend might be. They used confidential informants to bolster their math.
“That’s who we went out and targeted,” he said. “Once we got going, we were constantly working cases. And we were in court. A lot.”
One of the detectives on the team had a relative who was a jeweler, Klein said. That relative made a pin for each of the officers with a hangman’s noose on it.
“That’s where that came from originally,” he said. “So we wore the pins sometimes. But we didn’t paint it on the walls, and we didn’t have it all over our letterhead. We had ‘Albuquerque Police Department’ on our letterhead. We were proud to be APD. We didn’t think we were special.”
Klein said he stayed in ROP for two years. By the mid-1990s, he was watching the unit go downhill as it became populated with ex-SWAT guys.
“ROP became bastardized by SWAT,” he said. “It’s just a surrogate SWAT team now. They don’t look for great detectives anymore; they want shooters. Even the test is more focused on that at this point.”
The current ROP team is composed of at least three former SWAT members. Those three also have histories at the DOE’s National Training Center, going through drills in the live-fire shoot house, the massive tactical range and the East Mountains location’s other facilities (Again, APD’s refusal to provide public records makes it impossible to map the career paths of the 2014 version of the ROP team.)
Both former APD officers who spoke with News 13 on the condition of anonymity echoed Klein’s recollections of the old and new ROP teams. Both said a higher premium has been placed on firearms proficiency and a willingness to assimilate into Stephenson’s group than on demonstration of skilled detective work.
Kennedy, the Boyd family’s attorney, said her research has shown other troubling patterns.
“A professionalized police department has psychological screenings for specialized units,” she said. “I haven’t seen any evidence that any of that happens here, with the ROP team or any of the others. There doesn’t appear to be any protocol to screen people into the unit whatsoever.
“And the results are that the ROP team clearly attracts and employs narcissists … They don’t operate with any (tactical) plans. They just improvise. They’re like an improv group, except very unprofessional.”
Klein said he has seen the SWAT, ROP and other specialized units placed on a pedestal. That, he said, has contributed to APD’s steady march away from community policing.
“This is the problem at APD,” he said. “The command staff doesn’t support the beat cop. The command staff loves SWAT and the fancy equipment. No one in command at APD stands in awe of a 20-year veteran officer who was a beat cop his entire career. Instead, they wonder what was wrong with that officer that they never got ‘out of the field.'”
There’s not much to suggest that’s going to change anytime soon, Klein said.
For example, Chief Eden in April brought Bob Huntsman on board as assistant chief — his No. 2 man. Huntsman spent a large chunk of his career at APD running the tactical teams. Many of the officers assigned to ROP, SWAT and the other specialized units found their way to APD’s elite under Huntsman.
City officials and Justice Department lawyers since July have been hammering out what will be a court-enforceable set of reforms for APD. A federal monitor will oversee the city’s progress toward implementing the changes.
Among the areas Albuquerque leaders and DOJ officials agreed to change are APD’s “tactical units.” That means the SWAT and K-9 units are in for an overhaul. But technically, “tactical units” does not include the ROP team. So it is unclear whether the team will be getting a face lift through DOJ-mandated reforms.
The negotiations are secret.
‘Is this protect and serve?’
Sandy’s fate as it relates to the Boyd shooting is now far beyond the grasp of Detective Stone, a dashcam recording and Sandy’s mea culpa.
A federal grand jury during the past several months has heard extensive testimony and reviewed evidence related to the Boyd shooting, News 13 has learned. More recently, Eden and Huntsman have met with federal officials about the case in the local U.S. Attorney’s Office during the past few weeks.
A spokesman for the FBI characterized the federal investigation as “still ongoing” and declined to comment further.
Meanwhile, Brandenburg, the local DA, issued a news release last week confirming that she’d received APD’s case to review for possible state charges. “The report is very extensive, and will require time to completely and fairly review,” Brandenburg said in the release, then refused to answer questions about it.
For months, the Boyd shooting, which had caused the largest public outcry here in recent memory, had faded from public view.
News of the audio from State Police Sgt. Chris Ware’s dashcam broke last week, nearly six months after Sandy tried to fall on his sword. There have been varying interpretations of the key passage in Sandy’s remarks.
Kennedy hears it this way: “That f***ing lunatic? I’m gonna shoot him in the penis with a shotgun here in a minute … ”
News 13’s hears it slightly differently: “That f***ing lunatic? I’m gonna shoot him with a (unintelligible) shotgun here in a minute.”
Ware told investigators he believed Sandy said he was going to shoot Boyd with a “Taser shotgun,” which fires high-voltage prongs.
“Regardless, it’s absolute hate speech,” Kennedy said. “Who calls homeless, mentally ill people (expletive) lunatics these days? Regardless of where he said he was going to shoot him or with what, it is profoundly inept, disturbing and frightening. Is this protect and serve?”
APD and people in Sandy’s camp have made a significant effort to focus on the details of what he said and didn’t say. Stone tried three different times to enhance the 17 seconds during which the key exchange takes place. News 13 obtained the final, cleaned up version. It sounds largely the same.
Nevertheless, Stone has told several people with ties to the investigation that his enhanced audio makes clear that Sandy did not make a reference to Boyd’s genitals, News 13 has learned. Other people with knowledge of Stone’s efforts have told News 13 the same thing.
And when News 13 interviewed Mayor Richard Berry and Chief Eden last week, both focused on Sandy’s language. Just before our interview with Eden, his spokeswoman pointed out the APD policy that prohibits foul language from officers.
Eden picked up that line of thinking from there.
“My reaction is that’s absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “There’s no other way to look at it. Our policies strictly prohibit that type of language from our officers.”
News 13 pressed the chief: “Is it the language that’s unacceptable to you? What specifically is unacceptable about that exchange?”
He responded: “Our policy is very clear. Insulting language, profanity, anything that is demeaning to a person, it’s very clear: It’s unacceptable behavior.”
Neither Berry nor Eden would go near the larger questions about what Sandy said — or their implications. Both cited the ongoing FBI investigation as their reason for not speaking further.
Previously, Berry called the Boyd shooting a “game changer,” although he has not explained what, specifically, he finds troubling about it — or how the game has changed.
Between the dashcam audio and Stone’s interview with Sandy, a few things are clear.
More than an hour before he ever laid eyes on Boyd, the ROP detective was having a discussion about shooting a man, whether it was with a Taser shotgun or something else. Sandy referred to a man with a long history of mental illness as a “f***ing lunatic.” He hadn’t been briefed by anyone on the scene about what was transpiring up on a craggy rock formation in the hills above, where upwards of 40 other police officers had assembled to deal with one man for allegedly camping in an area that was off-limits.
At the time he made the comments, Sandy had no idea what the situation might call for once he was face-to-face with Boyd. That’s what is supposed to dictate when and how officers use force against citizens.
News 13 asked Eden whether that was an indication of the infamous APD culture that has cost lives, tens of millions of dollars to compensate victims of police misconduct and the reputation that comes with 46 pages of harsh findings from the Department of Justice.
“I would hope not,” the chief said. “I would hope not.”