Albuquerque, NM -- On March 16, 2014, Albuquerque police officers executed James Boyd for illegal camping. The entire incident was captured on the officer's body cam which led to the now-retired Officer Keith Sandy and Officer Dominique Perez being charged with the murder of the 38-year-old homeless man suffering schizophrenia in August last year. It also started a firestorm of backlash against police and a nationwide demand for cops to wear body cams. However, the additional accountability of police filming themselves has been brought into question as the Albuquerque police department has just been caught 'deleting, encrypting, altering, and destroying' these very videos.
The department’s former records supervisor has alleged in a sworn affidavit that Albuquerque Police Department officials have altered and, in some cases, deleted videos that showed several controversial incidents, including at least two police shootings.
According to Reynaldo Chavez, the former APD employee, he learned of the shooting videos being destroyed and edited because there were so many Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) requests from victims of the APD, that he was immersed in the audit logs -- eventually finding tons of evidence. According to the affidavit:
From 2013-2015, I had so many IPRA requests for SD card or lapel video that there were approximately five to six new people, at the APD Forensic Unit, tasked with burning copies of video. That is how I learned about SD cards and lapel camera video being either deleted, encrypted, altered, or destroyed.
When Chavez found that officers were deleting evidence of themselves shooting people, he attempted to notify his superiors that it was illegal.
I learned that Lieutenant Aragon was allowing Frank Pezzano to erase, corrupt, alter or encrypt camera video and I told him that it was illegal and unlawful to do so.
After Chavez crossed the thin blue line, however, he was immediately snubbed out. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the police department placed Chavez on leave in April 2015 while it investigated unprofessional conduct in the records division, which he led. Ultimately he was fired. In a whistleblower lawsuit he filed against the city in January, Chavez claims he was fired for raising concerns about department higher-ups’ unlawful orders that forced him to deny public records requests in high-profile cases. The city denies those claims, and the case is pending.
According to Chavez, the deletion and alteration of videos were common practices and were not only used to deny anyone who would attempt to request evidence of police misconduct but also to retaliate against other officials.
I know that "political calculations" motivated City employees to commit such unlawful or improper actions. Such political reasons included but were not limited to: concealing misconduct by City personnel, mitigating negative media and public reaction concerning actions by City personnel, retaliating against City personnel, depriving opposing pmties of discovery related to pending civil actions against the City and shooting APD officers, encrypting or altering audio and video so that requestors were not able to access information contained therein, and concealing relevant records from the United States Depmtment of Justice.
These allegations by Chavez tell a chilling story and now all the past corruption and cover-ups begin to make sense. Officer Jeremy Dear, who has a history of malfunctioning body cameras, shot and killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes in the early morning hours of April 21, 2014. However, we were told that his body camera 'malfunctioned' just as the shooting took place.
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Although Dear's camera 'malfunctioned' when he killed Hawkes, three other officers’ cameras captured some of the events of that night. According to Chavez’s affidavit, as reported by the New Mexican, one officer’s video was “altered by changing the gradient of the resolution on the video.” Twenty seconds were deleted from another officer’s video. And officer Tanner Tixier’s video, which shows the shooting from a distance, “has been altered by using the functionalities within Evidence.com where you can make … the video blurry or unclear.”
Then, in August, the Free Thought Project learned that the gun Dear claims Hawkes pointed at him, causing him to shoot her,contained zero DNA from Hawkes, nor did it have her fingerprints on it.
Documents cited by local ABC affiliate KOAT, said no DNA or fingerprints were found on the firearm Hawkes putatively pointed at Dear — and the Albuquerque police knew about it the entire time -- painting a picture of a massive conspiracy to cover it up.
According to the New Mexican, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said Friday that she had just become aware of the affidavit and was contemplating her office’s response. She said she sent the affidavit to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“These are extremely concerning allegations,” Brandenburg said. “This throws everything into question. As prosecutors, we have to rely on what we get and the integrity of everyone in the process. These kinds of allegations raise so many questions.”
Not only does this new information throw every case in the recent history of the Albuquerque police departing into question, but it brings every department in every city across the country into question.
Many departments across the country rely on a video service from Taser International Inc. which uses a cloud-based storage system, Evidence.com.
Evidence.com allowed Chavez others at the police department to “edit lapel camera video in any number of ways,” according to the affidavit, including by “inserting or blurring images on the videos or by removing images from the video.”
“I was able to see, via the Evidence.com audit trail, that people had in fact deleted and/or altered lapel camera video,” he says in his affidavit. Furthermore, reports the New Mexican, Chavez says that APD employees uploaded video from other sources, such as cellphones and surveillance cameras, to Evidence.com and altered those as well.
Taser's Evidence.com also provides an online manual supporting the claims by Chavez of officers being able to edit or delete videos.
Unfortunately, other than filming the police yourself, there is no real solution to this problem. Holding police accountable for providing the entire unedited video will be next to impossible since all departments will claim that they need to be able to edit the videos to protect the privacy of officers and victims. This leaves Americans in the dark when it comes transparency as well as voiding any reliable accountability provided body camera footage.