ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — There's not enough evidence to pursue criminal civil rights charges against the Albuquerque police officers who were involved in the 2014 fatal shooting of a homeless man that spurred public protest, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday.
Officials with the agency's civil rights division, federal prosecutors and the FBI met with James Boyd's family and their representative to inform them of the decision to close the investigation following what was described as an independent thorough and careful review.
"This decision is limited strictly to the department's inability to meet the high legal standard required to prosecute the case under the federal civil rights statute; it does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the shooting," the agency said in a statement.
Boyd, who had a history of mental illness, was shot and killed following an hours-long standoff with authorities after he was discovered camping illegally in the foothills bordering Albuquerque.
Two former Albuquerque officers were tried on second-degree murder charges in state district court. That case ended in a mistrial last year, and state prosecutors later cleared them both.
Watchdog groups and others who have been pushing for reforms within the Albuquerque police force said Tuesday they were disappointed in the decision. Boyd's death was a seminal moment in bringing broader understanding of the use of force by officers to the public, they noted.
"Ultimately what we need to focus on here in Albuquerque is changing the systemic deficiencies that are plaguing this department," said Steve Allen with the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico. "We are now two years into the process of reforming APD and we have a long and bumpy road ahead."
Police Chief Gorden Eden argued that the department is the first in the nation to ensure field officers are trained in crisis intervention and is considered a leader now when it comes to responding to those suffering from mental health crises.
"As a community we have grown from this difficult event," the chief said. "APD has worked hard to improve our policies around use of force and behavioral health reform."
The Justice Department review included witness statements, video and audio from devices worn by officers during the standoff, crime scene evidence and state court records.
"The evidence, when viewed as whole, indicates that the officers fired only after reasonably perceiving that Boyd posed a serious threat of physical harm to a fellow officer," the agency said.
According to the review, the officers were aware of Boyd's violent criminal history, mental health issues and his repeated threats to kill officers during the standoff.
There was insufficient evidence to prove that the officers' use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable, the agency said.
The shooting sparked protests in Albuquerque, including one demonstration that forced authorities to use tear gas and another where protesters shut down a city council meeting.
The shooting came as the Albuquerque Police Department faced criticism for a string of fatal shootings over a four-year period. It also preceded a broader national debate about excessive force and led Albuquerque's mayor to push the Justice Department to accelerate an investigation into the police department.
As a result, Albuquerque police faced a scathing federal report that described a "culture of aggression" and faulted officers for using unreasonable force with the mentally ill.
Boyd had a history of paranoid schizophrenia.
Video from a police helmet camera showed the final moments of the standoff. Boyd is heard yelling threats at officers in short bursts of outrage, but he also said he feared they would hurt him.
Nineteen Albuquerque and state police officers arrived on the scene after Boyd pulled two pocket knives on the first two officers who responded, authorities said.
The video showed Boyd picking up his belongings and telling officers that he would walk down the mountain with them. However, a flash-bang grenade was detonated on a rock to Boyd's right, prompting him to pull his knives as a K-9 unit approaches him.
Attorneys for the two former officers who were tried in the state case argued that their clients were obligated to shoot to protect the K-9 handler who had come within several feet of Boyd.
APD Forward, a coalition of reform advocates, said its members are still concerned that existing laws and policies at all levels of government make it nearly impossible to hold officers accountable for excessive force.
"We need to demand more meaningful systems of accountability in our police department so there won't be any more senseless tragedies like this in the future," said Natalie Nicotine, a spokeswoman with the group.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras contributed to this report.