Police shootings around the country are causing protests and outcry, and video footage from many of these shootings is shedding new light on the moments before a person is killed by law enforcement.
Here in New Mexico, a video ignited demonstrations and drew national attention after two Albuquerque Police Department officers shot and killed James Boyd in March of 2014. They’re now on trial for murder.
APD’s Patrick Hernandez was one of the officers who first responded to a call from a concerned resident about a man camping in the Foothills of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque. His testimony centered on why he did not shoot James Boyd, even after the homeless camper drew knives.
Hernandez said it was the first time in 10 years as an Open Space officer that someone had pulled a knife on him, and he described what was in his mind in that moment. "I actually could see my weapon firing. I could see the impact that might have had," he said.
But Hernandez could see something else, too: The scrutiny and media attention that would come from taking the shot. "And even [the] image of my face on the TV went through my mind, being in the media spotlight, trying to avoid that, just to prevent my family and other people from having to go through that," he said.
So he moved away from Boyd, he testified. And over the course of the next several hours, more and more police arrived, until there were 19 officers at the base of the mountain. In her opening statement, special prosecutor Randi McGinn listed the lethal weapons the officers had.
"So there were 19 firearms out there. There were—in addition—nine semi-automatic rifles with 709 rounds of ammunition," McGinn said.
And all the non-lethal options.
"There were seven handheld Tasers with a range of 15 feet. There were two Taser shotguns with a range of up to 100 feet. There were three beanbag shotguns out there, 10 cans of mace on the officers, more than two knives and two trained police dogs."
And Boyd, she said, had just two knives. As the standoff unfolded that day, she said, Boyd took those knives out of his pockets and then put them away repeatedly. And he rambled, saying things that hinted at his mental illness—that he could see in the dark, for instance. McGinn emphasized to the court that Boyd knew he was in danger. "'APD is standing by to kill me,'" she said. "And then he also says, ‘I came up here to watch dinner and a movie and get back to work tomorrow. They came up here with their guns drawn. I’m under assault right now. Look at that.’"
Lawyer Sam Bregman is representing former officer Keith Sandy, who shot Boyd using a rifle. "You got three officers walking up right to you. Those three officers are going 'Get on the ground! Get on the ground! Get on the ground! Get on the ground!' Four times. Does he surrender? No. Mr. Boyd thinks it’s appropriate—let’s pull out some knives."
The police video of the shooting shows Boyd turning away when he was shot, but the defense is working to change the narrative, saying that in the moments before Boyd died, he was not backing down but getting ready to attack. "There will be no evidence that he was surrendering by pulling out two knives. The evidence will show that’s not surrendering. That’s ‘I want to stab somebody,' Bregman said."
Defense attorneys are also hitting on the idea that you can’t use perfect 20/20 hindsight to retroactively weigh the calls police have to make in high-pressure situations. But expert witness Jeff Noble, a former deputy police chief from California, told the jury that this situation wasn’t like that.
"There was a lot of time. There was time to communicate," Noble said. "There were supervisors there. There were people to ask questions of, to get input from. This was not a split-second type situation for them, where like somebody’s jumping out at them and they’re suddenly making a decision."
Dominique Perez and Sandy are expected to take the stand in their own defense. Questions about their motivations and behavior are already in play through expert witnesses and the testimony of the detective who oversaw APD’s internal investigation into the shooting. Perez and Sandy are facing up to 15 years in prison.