It was just 26 minutes and eight seconds into their dance when Boyd stated what everybody there knew: 'I can’t walk away. You can’t walk away'
It wasn’t long into his three-hour standoff with Albuquerque police that James Boyd seemed to grasp the severity of the dilemma he and the cops were in. What had started off as a minor call about illegal camping had spun irrevocably out of control.
Even Boyd’s paranoid schizophrenia, which was on full display that 16th day of March 2014, couldn’t interfere with his intuition of how things had gone and where they were going.
In words that now seem hauntingly prophetic, Boyd understood that neither he nor the cops could disengage from their deadly dance. He couldn’t walk away, and the cops couldn’t let him leave.
He had committed a felony by pulling two knives on cops and threatening to kill them, and they were obligated to disarm and arrest him.
“We’re in a situation,” Boyd told the six or seven officers surrounding him, weapons drawn at a sun-baked, rocky and sparsely vegetated place called U Mound in the Sandia Mountain foothills on the east edge of town.
It was just 26 minutes and eight seconds into their dance when Boyd stated what everybody there knew: “I can’t walk away. You can’t walk away.”
About four minutes later, one of the officers asked Boyd, who had repeatedly refused to drop or give up his knives, “How are we going to resolve this?”
Again, Boyd responded with an intuition that turned out to be eerily accurate: “I don’t know if we can. I think somebody’s going to get hurt, killed.”
Boyd was indeed prophetic. He was shot three times by cops and mortally wounded that day. The Albuquerque Police Department was hurt as well, its reputation as a trigger-happy department solidified even further, thanks to lapel-camera video that went viral and was seen worldwide. The two officers who shot Boyd would face charges of second-degree murder, an unprecedented decision for this city.
In so many ways, the whole ugly scene with its horrible outcome need not have happened.
Many times during the three-hour standoff there were points where it could have been prevented from escalating and where it might have been calmed. But for a variety of reasons, those opportunities were missed or refused, and Boyd and the cops danced themselves right into the abyss.
ABQ Free Press talked with retired cops and a former prosecutor to see exactly how and when the Boyd confrontation spun out of control and how it might have been prevented or calmed. Not all of our sources agreed with each other on police tactics, which is why the Boyd case has so divided the community.
Here’s a breakdown of the major scenes in the Boyd drama.
Guns drawn 11 seconds in
It was around 4:30 that Sunday afternoon when APD Open Space officers John McDaniel and Patrick Hernandez got a call of someone camping illegally in city open space in the foothills past the end of Copper Avenue.
They stopped at the house of nearby resident Alexander Thickstun, a U.S. Air Force captain, the man who had called APD’s nonemergency number to report the illegal camping. Thickstun had been out earlier that day with his two Great Danes and a handgun to investigate the area where he thought a man had been camping. Thickstun told the officers where they could find Boyd.
McDaniel and Hernandez reached Boyd’s site around 4:45 p.m. and found him lying in a makeshift plastic tent. Illegal camping is a misdemeanor, but things escalated immediately. One of Boyd’s hands was outside the tent and the other was inside. McDaniel wanted to see the other hand to make sure it wasn’t holding a weapon.
“How’s it going? Albuquerque police,” McDaniel said as he approached Boyd. About six seconds later, McDaniel said to Boyd, “Let’s see your hands.” At 11 seconds in, McDaniel repeated the demand, and he and Hernandez drew their handguns on Boyd.
To some former cops, that was the wrong call and escalated a petty misdemeanor call to one where weapons were drawn, putting Boyd on the defensive. Cops should never draw a weapon, which amounts to a show of deadly force, for a misdemeanor, they said.
“There is no purpose to draw a weapon on a suspect in a nonviolent crime, and the fact that he [Boyd] didn’t show his hand is not a show of deadly force [on Boyd’s part],” said former APD officer Tom Grover. “Drawing a weapon because someone hasn’t shown their hands on an initial approach is completely outside of training. You don’t have any information that he is a suspect in an armed crime.”
The preferable way to handle such a situation would have been to talk in a friendly, nonthreatening manner, telling Boyd that camping was illegal and suggesting that they’d be back in a few hours and that he had better be gone when they returned, some officers said.
They also could have suggested that Boyd move 300 yards to the east to the national forest where camping was allowed. That’s how those types of calls used to be handled and might still be handled, they said, by officers using their discretion and not going strictly by the book.
But there was one thing that prevented that from happening.
The officers were dispatched based on a citizen’s call and that citizen expected action, said retired APD officer Mark Bralley. “Telling a guy to leave and that I’d be back in two hours, I might have done that if I had not gotten a call from a citizen. It’s a call from a citizen who expects something to be done, and he got plenty of service that day,” Bralley said.
Ill-advised pat down?
The next escalation came about 43 seconds into the encounter when McDaniel told Boyd he wanted to pat him down to see if he had weapons.
Boyd said to the officers, “Please don’t touch me.” But McDaniel persisted and asked Boyd to turn around. When McDaniel attempted the pat down, Boyd wheeled around and pulled two four-inch-blade pocket knives out of his pockets and held the blades outward in both hands while facing the officers. At that instant, Boyd committed the crime of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on an officer, and at that point the cops were obligated to arrest him.
That attempted pat down was a mistake, some former cops said, for two reasons. It jeopardized the officers’ safety, and most cops know that homeless people in general don’t like to be touched. It amounted to a needless escalation, they said.
Most cops who deal with the homeless know they typically are armed for their own protection, usually with box cutters or knives, Grover said. “They don’t have hatchets, machetes, or bazookas,” he said.
In general, cops don’t like to touch homeless people either, because, well, they’re walking infestations and germ factories, former cops said, and their clothes are often caked with feces and urine.
Boyd could have ended it
While McDaniel and Hernandez might have acted too aggressively, the fact that Boyd pulled two knives on them took the situation to a new and dangerous level. The officers then faced a potentially deadly threat, because knives, even ones with four-inch blades, can easily slice through the body armor cops wear. And at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Boyd presented a formidable threat.
With the knives out, the officers pointed their weapons directly at Boyd and shouted at him at least a dozen times to drop them. Boyd refused to do so, and the situation reached the point of no return.
About two minutes in, and while they were shouting at Boyd to drop his knives, McDaniel radioed police dispatch to say they were holding a man at gunpoint who was pointing knives at them. To Grover, that was the tipping point for both sides. Any cop listening to his radio heard that a guy had threatened fellow officers with lethal force – a felony – and police started flooding into the area. Dispatch began directing officers to the scene, and 17 more eventually arrived.
“That is when the genie is out of the bottle. It’s when the bell is rung, and now you can’t unring it,” Grover said.
Standoff and negotiations
As more officers arrived, including Crisis Intervention Team members, they began negotiating with Boyd. Early on, Boyd identified himself only by the nickname of Ba. His knives were back in his pockets, and he rambled on about his connections with high government officials, including those at the U.S. Department of Defense, and how the world would run out of money in five to six months.
“I’ve been calling [APD] about national security,” Boyd said. At one point, he said he would talk only to the New Mexico State Police. A state police officer was dispatched to the scene.
There were times when Boyd advanced slightly on the officers, but they repeatedly warned him that he would be shot with a bean bag rifle if he went past a certain point – a large rock nearby. For the most part, Boyd stayed behind the rock. Boyd also seemed to know police protocol. At one point, he warned the officers, “I’m approaching.”
Throughout the talks, officers repeatedly told Boyd that he would have to surrender his knives, a proposition that he repeatedly rejected. “You have no business asking me to put my knives down,” he said.
Around 29 minutes into the standoff, an officer said to Boyd, “How about we all put down our weapons? We’d have to pat you down.”
“You’re not touching my person,” Boyd replied.
“That’s what’s going to have to happen,” the officer said.
“Wanna bet?” Boyd answered.
Boyd’s ‘handlers’ not called
Two years before the standoff, APD had assigned two CIT officers to monitor Boyd as part of a department program to keep mentally ill homeless people on their medications and out of trouble.
It wasn’t until one hour and two-and-a-half-minutes into the standoff that Boyd gave his name to the officers. That information was radioed to dispatch, but the special prosecutor in the case said there was no evidence that anyone from APD called Boyd’s two CIT officers to come to the scene.
Some former officers speculated that had two people been on the scene who knew Boyd and his mental illness well, they might have been able to get him to drop his knives and surrender.
No commanders on-scene
To retired APD sergeant Dan Klein (a columnist for this newspaper), there was a glaring defect in the department’s response to the Boyd situation. No officer above the rank of sergeant – meaning anyone on the APD command staff – was on the scene during the negotiations and when the final plan to subdue and arrest Boyd was hatched and launched.
Sergeants, Klein explained, tend to think tactically, while commanders have a more strategic view of critical incidents. Sergeants generally want to end a situation as quickly as possible, while commanders might take more time to develop a plan or let negotiations go on longer.
“Many times, sergeants do not have the training to control and command officers from different units, and that is huge,” Klein said. “Sergeants know their five or six people that they work with. When you have a critical incident, you might have 20 or more officers out there.”
At critical incidents, there almost always is tension between SWAT team members and negotiators who are talking with, say, a barricaded subject, Klein said.
“The negotiators are saying, ‘Give us more time,’ and the SWAT sergeant is saying, ‘It’s getting late, the sun is going down, let’s end this.’ The command staff would be able to listen to both sides and say, ‘I’m going to give the negotiators another hour and SWAT team stand down.’ When there is a plan, the command staff can say, ‘This is a good plan’ or ‘This is a screwed-up plan. Why don’t we hit him with wooden batons (nonlethal rounds similar to rubber bullets) until he gets tired of being hit with wooden batons?’”
Even now, 17 months later, it’s not clear exactly who developed the nonlethal plan to subdue Boyd, but it was either SWAT or Repeat Offender Project team members on the scene. There were no APD commanders to determine whether it was a good or appropriate plan, Klein said.
Change in personnel, change in tactics
It was around 6 p.m. when APD Officer Keith Sandy arrived on the scene, and the late winter sun was low in the western sky.
Sandy was a member of the ROP team, a unit that had been created years earlier to go after the worst of the worst. The ROP Team tended to mount heavily armed assaults on houses where armed and dangerous criminals with violent criminal records were holed up.
In recent years, some of the worst abuses by APD involving wrongful use of force were committed by the ROP team. In settlement of a civil-rights investigation of APD by the U.S. Department of Justice, the department disbanded it.
Around the time of Sandy’s arrival, members of APD’s SWAT team and other tactical officers also began arriving. Prior to that, all of the officers negotiating with Boyd were field officers – meaning patrol officers, or beat cops – sergeants and CIT officers. At one point, they were pulled back from close contact with Boyd, and the SWAT and tactical officers took their places.
It was then that the tone of the standoff changed and became more ominous, according to Randi McGinn, special prosecutor in the case against Sandy and officer Dominique Perez, told the judge who heard the case against them.
The plan to subdue, and what went wrong
The sun set at 7:15 p.m. that day, and some officers apparently were concerned that it would soon be dark. And because of the rough terrain they were in, it wasn’t practical to bring in floodlights to illuminate the area, testimony at the preliminary hearing showed.
The plan to get Boyd off the mountain was called a layered, nonlethal plan that involved throwing a flashbang grenade at him, shooting him with a Taser shotgun and having a K-9 police dog attack him.
Sandy and Perez, who arrived at the scene at 7:11 p.m., were put in position as lethal backup shooters in case Boyd continued to resist. At 30 seconds past 7:30 p.m., the flashbang grenade was thrown at Boyd, who was on high ground above the officers.
A flashbang grenade is a nonfragmentation explosive device that booms with 178 decibels and creates a flash of light so bright that it generally blinds a subject for 20 to 30 seconds. In 70 percent of the cases in which flashbangs are used, subjects fall to the ground, according to testimony in the preliminary hearing for Sandy and Perez.
Right before the plan was put into effect, it appeared that Boyd was willing to leave the mountain and cooperate. “All right, don’t change up the agreement,” Boyd said as Perez and Sandy aimed their rifles at him. “I’m going to try to walk with you.” Boyd then picked up his backpack and other belongings and appeared to be ready to start walking. He had no knives in his hands.
At that point, an officer said, “Do it,” and the flashbang grenade was thrown toward Boyd.
Because the grenade landed near a rock in front of him, which possibly shielded him from the blast and light, Boyd didn’t fall to the ground when it went off. Around the same time, an officer fired a Taser shotgun round at Boyd, and the K-9 dog was set loose toward him.
The Taser, which causes muscles to seize up and trigger a bodywide cramp, didn’t affect Boyd, perhaps because he was wearing five layers of clothing – four shirts and a sweat shirt – according to testimony. The K-9 dog didn’t bite Boyd as planned. The dog apparently was affected by the Taser and turned back to its handler, APD Officer Scott Weimerskirch, who ran forward toward Boyd to meet the animal.
By this time, Sandy, who was providing lethal cover for Weimerskirch, moved forward as well. After the ineffective grenade, Taser and dog attack, Boyd pulled two knives from his pockets and held them about waist-high in both hands.
Officers told him to hit the ground. Boyd started turning to his left – to obey the officers’ orders, the prosecution claimed – when Sandy and Perez fired at him with semi-automatic assault rifles. Sandy was nine to 10 feet away when he shot Boyd, who was hit by three shots in the 1.5 seconds it took the two officers to fire their weapons.
“Everything that could go wrong with the plan did go wrong,” Klein said, adding that there was no reason the officers could not have kept talking to Boyd and then shot him with baton rounds if it got too dark.
For Bralley, the case resulted in an “ugly video” in which a man was shot to death. Despite the efforts to negotiate with Boyd and get into his mind, no one could. “Anyone who could have gotten into his head sure would have been welcomed on the hill that night,” Bralley said.
— Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press. Reach him at email@example.com.