After James Boyd was shot and killed by members of the Albuquerque Police Department, a recording emerged of one of those officers telling a colleague he was going to shoot Boyd hours before he did it. Keith Sandy is facing aggravated battery and second-degree murder charges. During much of his testimony on Wednesday, Oct. 5, he tried to explain police culture and the banter between officers.
Sandy worked on the Repeat Offender Project unit or ROP. The unit's symbol was a noose, and the team was known for finding criminals. Because of the kinds of people the team tracked, Sandy told the court, officers got stressed.
"And you can see it in a person," he said. "You can see their demeanor change. You can see their face. Their breathing will change."
Sandy had always wanted to be a ROP officer, and he idolized the bosses there. Teasing was just part of the job. And he testified that there was so much teasing, they even had a safe word for when it got too bad. It was “China.”
"Because of the stress and because of the element of criminal in which we pursued," he said, "banter was interjected to change that focus, to kind of put some light in the situation."
From the beginning of this trial, the prosecution has worked to cast Sandy as over-eager to shoot someone. He was on-call the day of the standoff with James Boyd in the Sandia Foothills, where the homeless man had been illegally camping in 2014.
Sandy got word that they needed someone to head out to the scene with a Taser shotgun. But when he found out there’d been a mistake, that they wanted someone from the gangs unit instead, Sandy went to the standoff anyway.
When he pulled up, he saw a State Police officer he knew who’d been sent in response to a request from Boyd.
"What did he say as to why he was there?," defense attorney Monnica Garcia asked.
"He said he didn’t know," Sandy said. "And then he said, 'This guy called us.' And so I responded by: 'This [expletive] lunatic?' And then I said, joking—bantering—with him that because I’d been called there to shoot with the Taser shotgun, I said, 'Well I’m about to shoot him with a Taser shotgun here in a second.' "
When that audio clip circulated, there was speculation about what he’d actually said. It’s kind of muffled, but media reported that Sandy possibly said he was going to shoot Boyd in the penis with a shotgun. But for the prosecution, the focus has been more on the idea that Sandy was saying he wanted to use force against Boyd before he’d reached the scene, and on how the word “lunatic” shows a bias against people with mental illness.
"Why did you call Boyd a lunatic?" Monnica Garcia asked.
"Lunatic is a word that I use—I used—during that time," Sandy answered. "I regret saying it, deeply. But it wasn’t directed ... I wasn’t even thinking about Mr. Boyd."
"You still use that word frequently?"
"Absolutely not," Sandy said. "I have not used it."
Special Prosecutor Randi McGinn’s line of questioning at first focused on Sandy’s history, how he’d been fired from the State Police for double-dipping. He admitted on the stand that he wasn’t proud of that. He was then hired by APD at a time when the department was trying to boost the number of officers on the force.
Then McGinn questioned Sandy on more of the language police used that day. The K-9 officer Sandy was protecting told him to throw a diversionary device—a flash-bang—and used an expletive to refer to Boyd.
"Is that how the three of you thought of Mr. Boyd at that time?" McGinn asked.
"No ma’am," Sandy said.
The reason she brought up that exchange, McGinn said, was because officers are supposed to recognize when someone has mental illness, not hold them responsible for it, and not respond with anger to their taunts.
"And yet that comment sounds angry," she said.
"Ma’am, I … to be honest with you, I did not hear … I heard 'Bang him' is what I heard," Sandy said.
That day the K-9 officer released a dog that didn’t bite and then followed the dog up the hill toward Boyd. Sandy emotionally recalled those tense seconds. "And I see Mr. Boyd’s hands go into his pocket. And when he did that, I tried to come up, and I was trying to keep distance from Mr. Boyd," he said.
Sandy went on to fire two bullets into Boyd’s arms, and when he saw that Boyd was still standing, he fired a third. Then, he said, Boyd’s gray sweatshirt fell out of the visual of his rifle sight. The other defendant, former officer Dominique Perez, also fired three shots, and Boyd later died at the hospital.
The ROP team has since been disbanded as part of an agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Sandy and Perez are both facing up to 15 years in prison. The trial concluded Thursday, Oct. 6, and jurors are deliberating.