‘I Think of Cops as People Who Want to Kill:’ Relatives of the Dead Revisit Albuquerque Police Shootings

Weeks before the administration of Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry becomes history, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation that led to court monitored reforms of the local police department are back in the headlines.

A Huffington Post story chastising the compliance of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) with the reforms, a slew of comments by New Mexico politicians and a new department website touting a new day are making news.

“APD Reform is designed to increase transparency of the Albuquerque Police Department and the changes we are making within the department,” APD Chief Gorden Eden said at the campaign’s late October rollout — only days before the latest report on reform compliance by the court-appointed monitor was released, and as a controversy over a video recording of the court-appointed monitor erupted.

“It is important for the public to understand and know the progress their police department is making to better serve the people of Albuquerque,” Eden said.

But some relatives and friends of people whose killings by APD officers prompted the DOJ investigation aren’t impressed.

“I think it started to work a little, but to me nothing has changed,” said Suzanne Saiz. She’s the aunt of Dominic Smith, who was shot to death at age 30 by APD officer Jacob Welch in 2009 after an alleged robbery of a Walgreen’s drug store.

“There have been improvements, but not as far as justice and the police getting reprimanded for their actions,” Saiz said. “It’s very sad that (police) can get away with it.”

In 2010, the Albuquerque Journal reported that a Bernalillo County grand jury quickly ruled the shooting of Smith was “justified under New Mexico law.” But Smith’s death was documented in a 2014 DOJ report that found an unconstitutional pattern of excessive force by APD. The findings resulted in a court-monitored settlement between the former Obama administration and the Berry administration encompassing crisis intervention training, use of force and other reforms.

According to the DOJ report:

Smith did not pose a threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers or others. Smith used a threatening note to rob a pharmacy for drugs before fleeing on foot. No one at the pharmacy saw Smith with any kind of a weapon and he did not commit acts of violence during the alleged robbery.

The report detailed how the situation escalated after Smith attempted to flee an officer who confronted him with an assault rifle: “With Smith just a few feet away, the officer claimed that Smith motioned near his waist, which the officer believed to indicate that Smith was reaching for a gun. The officer shot and killed Smith. Smith did not have a gun.”

According to the aunt, Dominic Smith “wasn’t in his right mind” when the shooting occurred. By then, the young man was in the depths of an opioid addiction. Prior to his addiction, Smith was studying electrical engineering and had helped his mom in a new business, according to Saiz.

“A very hard working guy” who learned construction and woodworking, she described her nephew as generous to even to the homeless — a man who would give away his last five bucks.

“You needed something fixed and he was the handyman to do it, a jack-of-all trades,” Saiz said.

Dominic Smith didn’t have children but had “two Chihuahuas he loved,” one of which is still alive, she added. The descent of a caring, industrious man into drug addiction was “shocking” to his family, and his mom’s efforts at securing rehabilitation were made difficult by closed doors or unaffordable treatment slots, Saiz said.

“Losing Dominic just tore her apart, mentally and physically,” Saiz said of her sister’s condition after the October 1, 2009, shooting, which fell only nine days before Dominic’s birthday. “That’s always been very hard. October is very hard.”

Back then, with the world plunged into the Great Recession and New Mexico tattered to economic shreds, the trials and tribulations of a working stiff who suffered two successive accidents and ended up hooked on opioid painkillers ranked low on the public policy action agenda. And despite the Trump administration’s opioid-related public health emergency declaration, many would argue that the Dominic Smiths of today are still low on the totem pole of priorities.

In Dominic Smiths’ memory, his family erected a metal cross near the spot where he was killed on Albuquerque’s West Side. Recently, the cross vanished. Relatives searched but came up empty-handed until a local television outlet ran a story and the cross was mysteriously found the next day in a dumpster the family had previously searched. Now the cross is back and fastened in concrete, Saiz said.

A small but emotional October vigil

Holding a red rose and wearing a button with Dominic’s picture, Saiz was part of a small group of people that gathered Oct. 22 on the steps of the APD headquarters. A few candles decorated the building’s entrance as people spoke and remembered loved ones. Oct. 22 is commemorated annually by activist groups as the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality,

Most of those who assembled at APD were veterans of the mass protests that erupted in the Duke City more than three years ago after APD officers shot to death homeless camper James “Abba” Boyd.

“It interrupted my peace reading it. There is no reason for it all,” Annette Kaylorq said about her motive for joining the earlier Albuquerque protests. “When I read about James Boyd, I came down.”

Larissa Lewis arrived this Oct. 22 toting her familiar placard with photos of her late son Kerry and his girlfriend smiling to the stars, beautiful young people imbued with the excitement of life, and a stark message: “Corruption equals brutality. APD wasted lives and millions $$$. #Chain of corruption.”

Murdered in Albuquerque back in 2009 at the age of 21, Kerry Lewis wasn’t slain by police, but a mother’s grueling search for the truth led her through layers of a justice system she depicted as inhabited by highly questionable investigators, murky informants, drug dealers and musical-chair players who move between government law enforcement and private security firms.

Although the DOJ investigation and subsequent court settlement focused on the specific issue of excessive use of force, Lewis is one who insists that the APD shootings are merely symptomatic of a far deeper problem that includes influence peddling, nepotism and systemic corruption that hasn’t been rooted out by the DOJ — or any other authority for that matter.

Lewis berated U.S. District Judge Robert Brack, the federal judge overseeing the APD reforms, for being too cozy with people he is supposed to be impartially overseeing by ending a July 28, 2016 status hearing on the process with a courtroom picnic attended by officers, DOJ officials and other stakeholders.

“Maybe this was a good time for a topping out ceremony. We now have a framework in place,” Brack was quoted last year in the Albuquerque Journal as saying. “We aren’t a big, beautiful, endearing place yet, but the framework is there. We’re building something here that can be a model for the nation.”

“It all funnels in his lap. What did he show everybody last July 28? He should’ve been recused,” Lewis contended.

Political geography is a factor not addressed in the DOJ-City of Albuquerque settlement. The agreement only covers APD and not the multitude of police agencies that have jurisdiction in their respective parts of the metro area — some of which, like the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department (BCSD), have become increasingly visible within the city limits during a time of a widely-perceived APD officer shortage.

A review of local media reports reveals at least 15 deaths involving police actions in the metro area during the first 10 months of 2017. Six mortalities were linked to officer shootings. One resulted from a tasering. Eight involved vehicle accidents or police pursuits, including chases of stolen vehicles.

In addition, an APD officer reportedly shot and killed an Albuquerque murder suspect who was cornered in San Rafael, located in Cibola County, last May. Of the fatal incidents, APD was involved in seven, BCSD five, Los Lunas school police one, Rio Rancho police one, and the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office one.

In October, the BCSD announced it had begun employing a GPS tracker, StarChase, which is fired from a pursuing deputy’s car and attaches to a suspect’s vehicle. That allows officers to remotely monitor a vehicle and recover it. According to the BCSD, the device was used in 18 incidents from late June to early October, yielding the recovery of approximately $100,000 in stolen property.

“The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office is excited to be the first agency in New Mexico to use this technology,” Sheriff Manny Gonzales said in a statement. “As we have all seen, high-speed pursuits are very dangerous.”

The siege of the Kirtland Addition

Saiz and others who turned out for the October vigil form a frayed “family” of relatives and friends that was especially vibrant between 2010 and 2014, when members staged public demonstrations, jammed city council meetings, demanded the intervention of the DOJ and called for the indictments of “killer cops.” Their voices resounded nationally months before the events in Ferguson, Missouri that earned national attention.

Nowadays, the “family” that rattled Duke City politics and beyond is diminished and dispersed: Some of the more active members passed away, some accepted legal settlements and lowered their profiles, and still others vanished into the woodwork. Personal crises nag at many. The woman who called for the Oct. 22 vigil at APD didn’t show up for the event, reportedly because of a robbery.

A movement veteran, Theresa James, doesn’t fit the stereotype of the rowdy protester glibly portrayed by Albuquerque media in the hot spring of 2014. A serious woman who studies the Bible, James is a working mother and grandmother whose roots tap into the multiple veins of America.

Of black, white and Native American heritage, James’ family traces its lineage to the historic Wampanoag Chief Massasoit. A great, great, great, great African-American grandfather, George James, was discharged from the Union Army in Pennsylvania in 1865.

Theresa James

When she was younger, James said she socialized with police officers and her father worked a stint as a probation officer. But today Theresa James has issues with the system dating back to 2007, when her ex-partner and father of two of her children, Jay Martin Murphy Sr., was shot to death by APD at his home in the historically African American Kirtland Addition neighborhood following a dispute with a neighbor that escalated into violence with police.

Allegedly armed with a knife, the 42-year-old Murphy had retreated into his home in an agitated state, according to court documents.

James recalled getting a call of the confrontation in progress while she was working at a restaurant. “By the time I got there, they were already in an ambulance,” she said. “I screamed and I told the SWAT team, ‘I’m here’ and ‘Why don’t you shoot me too?’ ”

According to James’ records, then-APD Chief Ray Schultz and three deputy chiefs were among dozens of officers from APD’s Tactical Unit Entry Team and other divisions, the BCSD, New Mexico State Police and Albuquerque Fire Department who were present at the scene at Murphy’s home.

Prior to the deadly day, Murphy had been in a fight over the condition of his house with the city government and its Safe City Strike Force, a nuisance abatement squad under the Martin Chavez/Pete Dinelli municipal administration that ultimately became embroiled in controversy over the seizure of properties allegedly involved in illegal drug transactions or substance abuse. A federal class action lawsuit filed on behalf of dozens of plaintiffs alleging harm from the program, Lowery vs. the City of Albuquerque, was settled in 2012 for $1.7 million by the Berry administration, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

“They gave Jay his house back and a week later they killed him,” James said. Although the couple had separated years before Murphy was killed, the former classmates remained close and James handled Murphy’s financial matters.

However, James said she could not keep paying for Murphy’s house after he was killed, and the property was lost.

She’s acknowledged that Murphy suffered from drug, depression and PTSD problems, but points to a positive side that included an earlier career helping students at West Mesa High School — the same campus where the two were students and Murphy was the “most popular” guy back in 1983.

As an adult, Murphy landed a job at the school, assisting the administration with students. Athletic, sports-loving and a black-belt in karate, Murphy had a certain rapport with the student body, James remembered. “He was good with young kids, just like he was with my kids,” she said.

In 2009, James filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against the City of Albuquerque and the Albuquerque Police Department naming ex-Mayor Martin Chavez, former APD Chief Ray Schultz and APD officer Russell Carter as individual defendants.

But in 2103 U.S. Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit Judge Phillip A. Brimmer ruled against James. Checking out another spigot of justice, James met with DOJ representatives during their APD investigation but then learned that the federal officials were not citing cases prior to 2009.

The New Mexico mom maintained that impunity in police-involved killings is the rule. “Well, I think it’s a general thing across the country and the world,” James said. “Cops generally don’t get indicted. It’s hard to prove that a cop outright murdered somebody.”

And if a case goes to trial, the cards are stacked in favor of the police since juries consist of people who aren’t empathic to “others’ situations” or believe offenders deserve to be in jail, she added. James admitted she used to think the same, until her son went to the D-Home one time, subjecting a mother to getting “slapped in the face with reality.”

In the absence of a father

Attired in black dress, James drove over to the Albuquerque cemetery where Murphy is interred and put flowers on his grave during Memorial Day weekend, as the 10th anniversary of his death approached. Murphy is buried only about 20 feet from the grave of Ken Ellis III, an Iraq war veteran who was fatally shot by APD in 2010 and whose killing resulted in one of the more celebrated civil trials involving APD — and a multi-million dollar judgment against the City of Albuquerque.

On June 5, the 10th anniversary of Murphy’s death, James published a memorial of her old “best friend” in the Albuquerque Journal that consisted of a photo of the young Murphy and a few words: “In Loving Memory of Jay Martin Murphy Sr. Forever Loved-Never Forgotten.”

James and her daughter Mariah Murphy later visited the New Mexico Veterans Memorial, a tranquil, shaded slice of the Duke City nestled in a section of the city where the shrieks of sirens and the pops of gunshots are frequently heard. There the two women halted at the red brick Murphy has his name etched into: “Jay Murphy Sr. U.S. Marine. Semper Fi.”

Mariah Murphy was 14 years old when her dad was killed, and she was present for the APD assault on his home. In an interview, she recalled a police bullet zipping by her.

“It hit the wall beside me, and that’s when I got scared and ran downstairs,” she said. “I thought I was going to die, like they were going to kill us.”

At first APD alleged that Murphy was holding his daughter as a hostage, but Mariah disputed that account, adding she was accorded odd treatment for a rescued hostage. “They claimed I was a hostage and threw me in handcuffs,” she said.

Now 24 years old and the mother of two children, Mariah grapples with the killing of her father, a trauma she said pops up in her mind every day, triggers nightmares and has left her with a case of diagnosed PTSD.

In her book, a violent day produced lasting emotional scars and an irredeemable loss to a family. “We were very close,” the Albuquerque woman continued, recalling sledding in the mountains and family barbeques Murphy liked to organize at his home. “I was a daddy’s girl. I was always with him… now I really don’t have that to look forward to.”

“He kept the family together,” she said, “and now I can say the family is apart. It just messed things up.”

Moreover, Mariah’s two young children don’t have a grandfather and ask what happened to him when they visit the cemetery, she lamented.

The politicos stake positions

Though overshadowed by Albuquerque’s crime issue, police reform is still a sizzling matter on the local political scene. In September, APD Forward, a coalition formed by the local ACLU, Common Cause New Mexico, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos and other activists, sponsored a mayoral forum on police reform attended by more than 300 people.

Three Democrats, Tim Keller, Brian Colón and Gus Pedrotty, were joined by independent Susan Wheeler-Deischel. Independent Michelle Garcia Holmes, an ex-APD officer, along with the three Republicans in the race at the time, Dan Lewis, Ricardo Chaves and Wayne Johnson, were no-shows.

The evening’s discussion delved into an array of issues besides policing — poverty, economic development, homelessness, behavioral health, drug addiction, and the public spending priorities of the outgoing municipal administration.

“If we don’t change conditions that put people in the first place, we’ll have repeat offenders,” Colón said. “There’s a direct correlation between deep poverty and crime.”

Community policing was the watchword of the evening. State Auditor Keller, who emerged from the first round of voting Oct. 3 to face Lewis in the Nov. 14 runoff, provided hints of the direction APD could undertake if he is elected mayor. Keller is a supporter of DOJ reforms and the endorsed candidate of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association.

Revealing that he had participated in APD ride-a-longs, Keller advocated diversity as a police recruiting principle, equity in the police department, community re-engagement, law enforcement education programs in the public and charter schools, an immigrant- and refugee-friendly policy, and a new police chief who could be an “outsider” to APD but someone who is familiar with Albuquerque.

Perhaps most important, Albuquerque will have a mayor who will take responsibility for finishing the DOJ-brokered reform process, he said. “Every month it takes (police reforms) longer to do, this prevents us from hiring more officers,” Keller asserted.

Both Keller and Lewis are on record vowing to sack current APD Chief Eden if elected.

Meanwhile, APD and the DOJ-sparked court settlement are also on the lips of other politicians.

“It’s clear the DOJ intervention has had little to no impact on APD and its unconstitutional and deadly practices,” Democratic congressional hopeful Deb Haaland said last week. “Community trust has been severely broken, and hardworking New Mexicans have forked over millions in taxpayer dollars to pay for an ineffective ‘monitor’ of the failed consent decree process.” Haaland’s statement came in the context of endorsing Keller for mayor.

For their part, Albuquerque City Councilors Brad Winter, Ken Sanchez and Don Harris lashed out recently at a widely-reported press conference where they questioned the multi-million expenditures of the court-appointed reform monitor, Dr. James Ginger, since 2015.

Ginger’s budget aside, the money expended on the monitor and his staff pales in comparison to $63.3 million in payouts and settlements from civil rights lawsuits connected to APD made by the City of Albuquerque between 2010 and 2016, according to an estimate published earlier this year by the Albuquerque Journal. The hefty sum flowed from city coffers at a time when the Duke City was undergoing one of its worst economic downturns in memory.

What’s more, the legal tab could balloon. According to recent media reports, pending lawsuits include the 2014 fatal APD shooting of 19-year-old Mary Hawkes; the brutal rape and murder of 10-year-old Victoria Martens, whose killing some contend might have been prevented had APD investigated a prior accusation of child abuse; and Tito Pacheco, a father of three who died from injuries after his vehicle was struck this past summer by a RV police were chasing.

‘I think it was all worth it’

To say that some relatives of those killed by APD are skeptical of elected officials, reforms, campaign pledges and the future of Albuquerque is an understatement.

Locally, an emblematic case for many is the 2016 trial of Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez, APD officers who were charged with murder in the James Boyd shooting in a rare indictment — but who walked out of court with a hung jury. A new Bernalillo County chief prosecutor, Raul Torrez, later announced he would not pursue the case. Sandy retired from APD, but Perez was reinstated to the force and awarded back pay earlier this year, APD spokeswoman Celina Espinoza told the Albuquerque Journal.

APD’s killing of her father alienated Mariah Murphy from law enforcement and the justice system.

“I can’t be around cops or see cops, of course,” she said. “I don’t think of cops as people who want to help. I think of cops as people who want to kill.” she added that other African American residents of Albuquerque she knows are scared of being killed by police or even interacting with them.

Will Tim Keller or Dan Lewis make a difference as mayor? “Honestly, no,” Mariah retorted. “They got rid of Schultz, now it’s Eden and it’s the same shit. It’s getting worse. They’re going to bring in a new chief and it’s going to be the same thing.”

Suzanne Saiz offers mixed opinions about the police department, local government and the city as a whole. She contrasted the $100 million-plus Albuquerque Rapid Transit system under construction on Central Avenue and the “beautification” projects undertaken by the current municipal administration with unaffordable housing, homeless encampments across the city, violence and government impunity.

Reserving hope that the new mayor “can do a better job than Mayor Berry did,” Saiz nevertheless held that justice is elusive. “It’s so hard to believe there’s justice out there. It’s brought me to believe that people don’t care,” she added.

Theresa James said she had “kind of lost interest” in the media back-and-forth among APD, politicians, lawyers and groups like APD Forward, calling the discourse and posturing a “big joke.”

For Larissa Lewis, the DOJ-influenced reform process has run its course.

“It’s stagnant. It’s done as much as it’s going to do,” she opined.

Despite pending debts with justice, Lewis credited the relatives’ activism with encouraging bad actors to jump off the law enforcement ship as reforms loomed. She termed James Boyd, Mary Hawkes and others killed by APD as “sacrificial martyrs” whose deaths prompted “divine intervention.”

“I think it was all worth it,” Lewis said. “If we had laid down and been sheep, the (cops) would still be gangbanging.”

This article was originally published by NMPolitics.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.