14 May 2015

Police brutality in the land of Breaking Bad

Albuquerque has a problem.

Not only with crime, but with a police force that has killed 29 people in the past five years.

It’s the biggest police department in the state of New Mexico, deep in America’s south west.

Two of those they killed were young men; one was homeless, the other lived with his family in a well-off suburb.  Both lived with mental illness.

More than half of the 29 killed by police were suffering from mental health problems.

On a sweet spring evening a vigil was held on the hillside overlooking Albuquerque and the watermelon mountains across the plain. A pagan witch and Catholic padre each blessed the campsite where James Boyd had slept the night before police came calling, responding to a neighbour’s phone call.

James was shot several times, not only with live bullets, but with baton rounds as well.  Police used flash bang grenades, and a police dog was loosed, at the conclusion of a four hour stand-off, when it seemed they’d persuaded James to come down the hill.

He reached for two small camping knives when things escalated.  He called out, ‘I can’t move.  Don’t hurt me.’

At the vigil, there were prayers that police might stop killing their brothers and sisters. Two police officers have been charged over his murder – both deny the charges.

See more of Kylie’s reports: Race in America: from Ferguson to Baltimore

Christopher Torres was in the back garden of the home he shared with his parents in the suburbs, when two plain clothed police came to deliver a warrant.

A neighbour witnessed parts of what happened next through the fence – Christopher was beaten, and then shot three times in the back, at point blank range.  A district court judge found the two detectives unnecessarily escalated the situation with their own aggression.

The mayor and chief of police have signed up to a raft of reforms under guidance from the Department of Justice, which found the Albuquerque Police Department systematically used excessive force.

But two former police warned us of fierce resistance from a subculture within the police to any real change in the way they do their jobs.

So if an intervention by the Department of Justice can’t force reforms and weed out rogue police, then what can?

It’s a question for the entire country – from New York, to Cleveland, to Baltimore, to Albuquerque.

And lives depend on finding the right answer.

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