Listen up, police officers: Real life isn't like "Breaking Bad"

A shocking video of cops shooting a homeless man reveals the dangerous psychology of modern policing

Published April 13, 2014 10:58AM (EDT)

Dean Norris and Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad"     (AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)
Dean Norris and Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad" (AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)

When I was growing up in Albuquerque, the TV show "Cops" was the closest thing New Mexicans had to a national platform. The Fox reality show, which hit its stride as a cultural phenomenon in the mid-'90s, was based on the then-novel premise of following police officers around with cameras, and recording the wide variety of ways in which they could arrest (mostly poor) people for committing minor felonies.

Albuquerque was but one of the locales featured on "Cops" -- Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City and Las Vegas were among the other regular backdrops for the show -- so the experience of seeing one’s under-recognized hometown on a broadcast network was not unique to Burqueños. But there was a curiosity with the show that went far beyond its promise of distilling good police work into easily digestible scenes and giving the viewer a genuine look at life on the streets. I have an early memory of going over to a friend's house as a 10-year-old, and my friend asking me if I wanted to watch "Cops" with him.

"Why do you want to watch that?" I asked incredulously. (My parents were a tough enough sell on "The Simpsons.")

"Because," he said, excitedly, "it’s filmed in Albuquerque!"

* * *

Earlier this month, the Albuquerque Police Department released a graphic and disturbing video that showed its officers shooting a homeless man who had illegally been camping in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, which stand to the east of the city, an unavoidable reminder of the world outside its limits and favored destination of those looking to escape it. The story goes that the man, 38-year-old James Boyd, had a lengthy criminal history that involved a couple stints in county jail and multiple attacks on civilians and officers using box-cutters or his own fists. According to local station KOAT, he was also almost certainly mentally ill, telling people that he was either God or on a secret mission from President Gerald Ford and at one point was held at a University of New Mexico mental health facility. The video picks up midway through the confrontation with police, and at first it seems like they have convinced Boyd to surrender. He is holding knives in each hand, but his body language suggests a sort of resignation. He picks up his knapsack and another bag, but when he turns to walk down toward the police you hear a voice command: "Do it."

One officer throws a flash-bang grenade, and another releases a police dog that rushes over to Boyd, startling him. Redrawing his knives, Boyd turns to retreat as multiple officers shout at him to "get on the ground" before opening fire on his retreating back. The APD advance as Boyd lies prone on the ground, and after one officer asks if he’s still moving you can hear Boyd moan, "Please don’t hurt me." A man who was by all accounts already severely mentally ill seems clearly now to be unable to follow the directions he is given to drop his weapon. The officers rush to his body after a police dog checks to see if he's playing dead, and as they restrain him, you hear his heaving sobs and see a smear of blood on a rock next to his head. As the action winds down, the half dozen officers involved in the standoff gather round as one asks, "You got lethal right there?" to an officer who is, even as Boyd is handcuffed, keeping his rifle trained on the suspect's head -- a suitable cherry-on-top to the Powell-esque overwhelming force displayed throughout the incident. Boyd died a few days later in the hospital.

Since the release of the video, APD has faced major questions about the conduct of its officers in this case, and more broadly about the department as a whole. Ken Sanchez, president of the Albuquerque City Council, stated in an interview that he was "disturbed and troubled" by the video, and even more so by the response of Police Chief Gorden Eden, who gave a press conference where he defended the APD's shooting of Boyd as justified based on the standard set by the Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Garner (1983) -- that lethal force is only acceptable if an officer perceives himself to be under immediate threat of physical harm. Mayor Richard Berry called that comment a mistake, but even in a follow-up interview with KOAT Eden would only allow that he spoke "prematurely." Eden went on to say that he believed the K-9 officer was in immediate danger when Boyd appeared to pull out his knives, but he deflected questions about if a taser should have been used and whether or not the officers had any reason to deploy a flash-bang grenade against Boyd.

The situation has continued to escalate ever since. A week after the video of Boyd's shooting surfaced, the hacker collective Anonymous released a video calling for action against the APD, and the FBI announced that it would open an inquiry into the death of Boyd. The following weekend, an initially peaceful protest turned disorderly, and the hundreds of protesters who had massed throughout downtown Albuquerque were fired on by the police with tear gas.

What is clear is that this display of force by the APD is nothing new. Earlier this week, seemingly prompted by outcry over Boyd's death, the Department of Justice released the findings of a report that was launched in 2012 into allegations that "APD officers engage in use of excessive force, including use of unreasonable deadly force, in their encounters with civilians." In the report, the DoJ points to institution-wide failures of the APD, including "insufficient oversight, inadequate training and ineffective policies." Of the 20 fatal shootings between 2009 and 2013 that the Department of Justice investigated, it found that in a majority of the cases the suspect killed by APD officers did not pose a direct threat to either the police or to the public.

Indeed, the use of excessive force by police and sheriffs appears to be a problem throughout New Mexico. In February, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the new director of the state’s Law Enforcement Academy (which conducts training for state and local law enforcement personnel), Jack Jones, had instituted a series of reforms to the Academy that seemed to emphasize force rather than negotiation as the primary recourse for a law enforcement officer having a confrontation with a suspect.

These reforms included dropping cadet training from 22 to 16 weeks, expecting both women and men to undergo the exact same physical-fitness entrance exam, and adding training for live-fire vehicle stops. (The latter is of particular note given that, last October, a state officer drew national media attention when he shot at a van with five children in it during a traffic stop outside of  the town of Taos after its driver fled the scene.) Jones made these changes after the state board that is responsible for exercising oversight over the Academy voted unanimously to (truly bizarrely) no longer subject his curriculum to any sort of scrutiny from the board itself. In that New Mexican piece, Jones is quoted as saying, "Evil has come to the state of New Mexico, evil has come to the Southwest, evil has come to the United States," and responds to the newspaper’s attempt to obtain a copy of Jones’ new curriculum under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act with, "I’ll burn them before you get them."

* * *

On "Cops," there is little moral gray area. The officers featured on the show are just doing their job -- getting the riff-raff off the street and keeping law-abiding citizens safe. Sometimes that process is sort of boring, like in this episode, where an APD officer arrests a man for possessing drugs and then has a kind-hearted chat with some of his friends about staying out of trouble. That sort of routine police work is B-roll, though; things get truly exciting when a transgender woman resists arrest for holding crack cocaine and is wrestled to the ground, displacing her wig. Never mind the implicit transphobia; it’s almost the perfect "Cops" moment: The police are confronted with a drug-addled suspect and have no choice but to get a little rough in order to place her into custody. The perpetrators on "Cops" are always cast as other: the homeless, minorities, addicts -- those who aren't welcome in polite society.

After more than 10 years of letting the show film in Albuquerque, in 2004 then-mayor Martin Chavez made it clear that "Cops" was no longer welcome in the city, mostly because the Albuquerque portrayed on the show was not the Southwestern metropolis he was trying to sell to the rest of the country. As the housing market boomed, Chavez saw an opportunity to reinvent Albuquerque as a regional hub and tourist destination akin to its neighbor to the north, the eclectic and artistically significant Santa Fe (most infamously, the mayor presided over a campaign to brand Albuquerque as "the Q"). Ten years later, Albuquerque’s recovery from the Great Recession has been as disheartening as the rest of the region’s, and the words most apt to leap to an outsider’s lips when the city is mentioned are "Breaking Bad." Fittingly enough, "Cops" has announced plans to return to Albuquerque, this time by shadowing the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office (Bernalillo County encompasses Albuquerque and most of its suburbs, so its jurisdiction often overlaps with the APD’s), despite objections from the Albuquerque City Council.

Why do people like James Boyd end up dead in Albuquerque? Why, less than two weeks after Boyd was shot, was another man, Alfred Redwine, killed in an exchange of gunfire with police that started as a domestic dispute? These acts seem to be a far cry from what's captured on "Cops" (or on its more contemporary cousins, "Police Women of Dallas" or "Boston's Finest"). We've all seen "Law and Order," "CSI" and "NYPD Blue"; we can’t help but hold out a macabre hope that there's more excitement and drama to police work than pulling over drunk drivers and tracking down low-level pushers in boarded-up houses. No, it's not what "Cops" captures that's so damaging, but rather the world view it espouses. You see it in the show's tireless distillation of police work into good guys vs. bad guys. Police officers on these shows are almost obsessive about finding the bad guys, using that phrase as shorthand for everyone from domestic abusers to public drunks. If evil has, in fact, come to the Southwest, you can see why some cops might envision a more noble life for themselves than what we see on the screen. When law enforcement warps into crime fighting, and then again into facing down evil, the subtleties of the job are elided and men like James Boyd become villains worth hunting.

In researching this article, I came across another striking video of the APD. This time, its not the police recording themselves or allowing a crew to follow them around while they’re on their best behavior. Instead, it's a video captured by a cameraman for KRQE of a traffic stop in progress. After a few minutes of filming, he is approached by an officer who greets the reporter’s questions with stony silence before reaching for the camera, bringing the reporter to the ground, and placing him under arrest for disobeying an officer.

To this officer, the idea that the public would get a look at the police in the midst of an operation without their complicity in that representation was unacceptable. The tragic flaw of the APD, and of any law enforcement agency that scorns transparency, is that it refuses to entertain the idea that its actions could be anything but honorable: The police protect the citizens, and there's no reason to question their methods. That’s why the officer in the video didn’t want a camera at the scene of a traffic stop, and why Jack Jones doesn’t think the public has any business knowing what gets taught at a police academy. It's almost a given that when Commissioner Eden watched the video of his officers shooting Boyd, he didn't give their decision a second thought. The police shot Boyd, so they must have had a reason to do so. There is no room in this philosophy for the idea that they could have made a mistake, that they could have found a better way to apprehend a mentally unstable man, one that didn't involve convincing him to surrender before springing a surprise attack on him.

The people of Albuquerque are understandably apprehensive about "Cops" returning to their streets. But in the video of Boyd being shot, what's striking is not that APD officers mimic their counterparts on "Cops" -- rather, it’s that they treat an encounter with an illegal camper with the gravity of a military operation. You hear them shout "get on the ground" at the top of their lungs, the adrenaline pitching their voices uncomfortably high. The officers are scattered in a tight semi-circle and act in a practiced and coordinated way. If there is no unimaginable evil for the police to actually attack, no nefarious drug cartel organized by a crooked middle-school science teacher, then they'll make sure this man illegally camping on a hillside pays the price of disobedience.

Albuquerque, like any city, needs an empowered police force in order to function. But citizens shouldn't have to fear the police officers who have taken an oath of duty to protect them. The APD, as it currently stands, is not fulfilling that obligation. The conduct of its officers belies an institution that could very well end up causing more harm to Albuquerque's residents, let alone its image, than the supposed evildoers whom it targets.

Back when "Cops" was originally filmed in Albuquerque, at its best it could elicit a sense of pride in the local police force. "Well," we might say, "it's not pretty, but at least they're out there." Whether or not that sentiment was valid then, it is certainly not now. This is not a story limited to Albuquerque, or to New Mexico. Part of the social contract that lies at the foundation of this country is the empowerment of a select group to enforce our laws and keep us safe, but we should never forget how delicate that bargain is. The only antidote to the abuses of power that can too easily take hold in a police force like Albuquerque's is transparency and oversight. As long as cops feel justified in putting their hands in front of cameras, the rest of us will never be totally sure who to call when evil really does arrive at our doorstep.

By Kyle Paoletta

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