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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Federal investigators have been probing the life or death question of when it's appropriate for police to use force. It's an especially urgent question in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
INSKEEP: Police in many cities face a commonplace standard - simply put, they can open fire to save themselves or others from a threat. Otherwise they should be trained to use discipline and patience to bring in suspects without violence. That is the mark of a professional police force.
MONTAGNE: In Albuquerque, police who've shot suspects say they did face threats. But the Department of Justice painted a different picture. Investigators charge that some officers provoke suspects until they became threatening.
NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.
KENNETH ELLIS: We're approaching the intersection now. It's Constitution, and we're turning off of Eubank.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: This 7-Eleven?
ELLIS: This is the 7-Eleven where my son was shot and killed.
MCEVERS: That's Kenneth Ellis II. His son, Kenneth Ellis III, was pulled over one morning in January 2010. Police said Ellis's plates didn't match his car. Ellis was an infantryman in Iraq. His family says he had PTSD.
Here in the 7-Eleven parking lot, when a police car pinned his car from behind, Ellis flipped. He got out of his car, put a pistol to his head, called his mom, Annelle Wharton, and asked her to come help. She got stopped a few blocks away.
ANNELLE WHARTON: I got here in less than 10 minutes. And the cop said: Here, let me get you away from the media and put me in the back of a squad car.
MCEVERS: Police at the scene later testified that Ellis took one step toward an officer, still with the gun to his own head. Another officer shot Ellis, once, in the neck.
WHARTON: And then they drove me up here and drove me right by him. And I could see his body under the sheets.
MCEVERS: The shooter went through the standard procedures - an internal police review and a grand jury. The killing was deemed justified. And so it was with dozens more killings over the next four years. Kenneth Ellis II and other victims' relatives started going to meetings, gathering signatures on petitions, staging demonstrations, and suing the city.
Shannon Kennedy represents some of the families. She says Albuquerque police treat suspects as if they don't have rights.
SHANNON KENNEDY: In America no one is above the law and no one is below the law. And what happened in the city of Albuquerque is APD officers were put above the law. And people with mental illness and criminal histories were put below the law. And that is what has got to be addressed here.
MCEVERS: But then, in March of this year, police responded to a 911 call saying a homeless man, later identified as James Boyd, was disturbing people in the foothills outside the city. Police recorded it on video. After an hours-long standoff, Boyd agrees to come down the rocky hill. He grabs his backpack then...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SOUND GRENADE)
MCEVERS: Police release a sound grenade and a dog. Boyd grabs two pocket knives and swipes at the dog.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get on the ground.
MCEVERS: Boyd starts to turn away, then...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
MCEVERS: ...two officers fire four live rounds. Boyd dies. Police release the video to show it was a justified use of force.
People in the community were furious. Hundreds marched to police headquarters.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
MCEVERS: Then in April the Justice Department released its findings, saying Albuquerque police regularly encounter people who do not pose a threat but then escalate tensions until they do pose a threat. After those findings came, two more shooting deaths and more protests. One victim was a 19-year-old woman who police say waved a gun during a foot chase.
The officers in these cases rarely get a chance to tell their stories because they could be used against them in court. The city already has paid tens of millions of dollars to shooting victims' families. So I went to police headquarters to meet Sean Willoughby, vice president of the police union. He says Albuquerque is a violent place. Civilians simply need to be educated about what police can and can't do.
OFFICER SEAN WILLOUGHBY: I'm shocked every time somebody from our community asks me: Well, why didn't you just shoot the gun out of his hand? Because we're not ninjas and that's not realistic. So I think there's a huge breakdown in communication, what the expectations are, and what the reality behind the outcome is.
MCEVERS: Albuquerque police will now get crisis intervention training. And they'll no longer be able use their own personal weapons on duty or shoot at moving cars. Police say more changes will come once the city and the Justice Department agree on a plan.
The feds are also investigating the James Boyd shooting in the foothills. And legal sources here say the feds might re-open other cases too, like the Ellis case.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
MCEVERS: That would be good news for Annelle Wharton and Kenneth Ellis, standing in that 7-Eleven parking lot. Their grandson was recently awarded $8 million in a civil lawsuit.
But still, they say, police need to be punished.
WHARTON: I think they need to go; I think they need to change out.
MCEVERS: We used to tell our kids police were here to keep us safe, Annelle Wharton says, but now none of us feel safe. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Albuquerque.
MONTAGNE: And a few photos and notes from Kelly's reporting in Albuquerque, go to our blog on Tumblr. It's called NPROnTheRoad, all one word.
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