ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – For years, the cozy relationship between District Attorney Kari Brandenburg and the Albuquerque Police Department brass — particularly in the realm of police shooting investigations — has irked justice system reform advocates.
Civil rights attorneys, families of men shot by police and vocal City Council meeting regulars have accused Brandenburg of giving APD a free pass in dozens of controversial shootings of citizens by never, in her 14 years as Bernalillo County’s top prosecutor, pursuing criminal charges against a shooting officer.
On Monday, the relationship started to chill when Brandenburg announced murder charges against officer Dominique Perez and now-retired detective Keith Sandy in the March shooting death of homeless camper James Boyd.
Less than 36 hours later, on Tuesday evening, it hit an iceberg.
That’s when Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Levy violated a written agreement that governs the way police shootings are investigated here — an agreement adopted by the U.S. Justice Department as part of its mandate to reform APD — by barring one of Brandenburg’s chief deputy prosecutors from the early stages of a probe into the most recent APD shooting.
Shortly after an APD officer fatally shot a suspect near the intersection of San Mateo and Constitution NE, Levy told Chief Deputy DA Sylvia Martinez that Martinez could not attend the incident briefing.
A representative from the DA’s Office has attended such briefings since at least 2001 to provide legal advice, approve search warrants and participate in a “walk-through” of the scene. In fact, according to a memorandum signed by Levy, Brandenburg and several other top officials last September, the briefing should not have been allowed to begin without someone from the DA’s Office present.
“Upon arrival, the task force members will await instructions and an incident briefing which will begin as soon as possible but not before all task force members are present,” the memorandum states. The DA’s Office is named as a task force member.
But Levy denied Martinez entry, saying the city and APD believe the DA’s Office has a conflict of interest in police shooting cases because of the way it handled the Boyd case: by sending a different chief deputy DA to the scene of that shooting, then assigning that same prosecutor to file the charges against Perez and Sandy.
“For them to say that we have a conflict of interest because we work with them, or for whatever reason, because we decided to pursue the Boyd case — and that was the reason given last night — basically means that they are above the law,” Brandenburg said in an interview Wednesday. “That what applies to everybody else in this county does not apply to the police department because anything we chose to do would create a conflict of interest.”
She said she notified the Justice Department on Wednesday of what her office believes is a clear violation of the written agreement that governs police shooting investigations.
City Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry said in a letter to Brandenburg dated Wednesday that he also had notified the DOJ. But the city’s position, Perry wrote in the letter, is that “neither the (agreement) nor the DOJ agreement (with the city to reform APD) have been violated and it is highly inappropriate to provide your unsubstantiated opinions to the public.”
Perry was referring to comments Brandenburg made to KRQE News 13 for a story published Tuesday night. Perry attached a copy of the report to his letter.
It appears the Justice Department may have to step in to deal with the breakdown that played out Tuesday night at the police shooting scene.
Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Martinez said she would try to get an answer from Justice Department higher-ups about whether the incident was a violation of the memorandum. Martinez never got back to KRQE News 13 and did not respond to a follow-up email Wednesday evening.
More broadly, Perry asked Brandenburg in the letter to appoint an “independent special district attorney … to participate in officer involved shooting cases.”
In short, Perry wants Brandenburg and her office removed from the police shooting investigation process.
In the letter, he reiterated Levy’s “concerns” about how the DA’s Office handled the Boyd case.He mentioned that, in addition to acting as the prosecutor on the case, Chief Deputy DA Deborah DePalo also is a potential witness in the case because she went to the scene of the shooting in the Sandia Foothills.
It is a concern the city has never raised before — in the dozens of police shooting cases in which Brandenburg and her prosecutors found no probable cause to proceed with criminal charges.
Now, things are different.
“I am hard pressed to believe that serving in an investigator role with the multi-jurisdictional task force, legal advisor to APD for criminal procedure at the scene, prosecutorial team member in determining probable cause, and trial prosecutor does not create an inextricable conflict of interest,” Perry wrote.
He also raised the specter of APD’s accusations against Brandenburg, which surfaced last month. Department officials sent a case to the state Attorney General’s Office along with a letter saying detectives believe probable cause exists to charge Brandenburg with bribery or intimidation of a witness for offering to settle debts for her 26-year-old son in exchange for his alleged burglary victims not pressing charges against him.
“As you know, you are the subject of an APD criminal case that involves you and family members,” Perry wrote to Brandenburg. “I will not pass judgment whatsoever on the merits of the case. However, it was referred to the Attorney General’s Office for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that you are the prosecuting authority for police shootings.”
News 13 in December published a story based on a review of the APD case file in the Brandenburg case that raised numerous questions about the investigation. Detectives conceded that the case was “weak” but talked about how “it’s gonna destroy a career.”
Brandenburg has maintained her innocence several times since news of the investigation broke. She has not been charged with a crime.
She said business continued as usual on Wednesday morning, with her office working hand-in-hand with APD to prosecute cases.
“We have always worked well with APD,” Brandenburg said. “We are working well with APD this morning. You know, most of our contact are with the guys, the officers that are out on the streets. They’re doing their job, they’re coming for pre-trials.
“Business continues this morning. We will continue to work well with APD. That is our goal, and you know, that’s what we have to do to represent the citizens of Bernalillo County. So we’re committed to doing that despite some of the obstacles or disagreements.”