On March 16, 2014 two Albuquerque police officers responded to a complaint about a man camping illegally in the hills just behind a residential neighborhood. The officers encountered the man on a rocky hillside, and when they called him out of his tent and tried to pat him down for weapons, he pulled out two folding knives and began to wave them at the uniformed officers and threatening, “This is gonna get bad; I’m already gonna kill you, try to hurt me.” He followed the threats with other nonsensical comments that suggested he was mentally ill, while refusing to drop or surrender his knives.
Additional officers, including crisis intervention personnel, K-9s, and SWAT officers, were dispatched to the scene and the camper’s threats and weapons kept the officers at bay for hours while they tried to reason with him and conclude the standoff. As over a dozen police officers, some with less-lethal weapons joined the effort, the man repeatedly threatened to kill officers while waving his knives menacingly.
Police learned the camper had a history of mental illness and an extensive criminal record, including violent assaults against police officers. As the standoff drew on and darkness loomed, the assembled police designed a layered arrest plan involving a distraction device, a Taser, and one of the K-9s to distract and detain the subject.
SWAT officer Dominique Perez was dispatched to the scene, leaving the birthday party his family had put together for him. Officer Perez arrived on scene minutes before the arrest attempt began. To ensure the safety of the fellow officers implementing the arrest plan, Officer Perez and a second officer were placed in positions to serve as cover, in the event lethal force was needed.
The arrest team did as planned, throwing an explosive distraction device, shooting a Taser weapon, and releasing the K-9 in trying to subdue the armed camper with minimal force. Each of these tools ultimately failed, leaving the approaching arrest team dangerously exposed when the man again pulled his knives and assumed a fighting stance. At that moment, seeing members of the arrest team less than ten feet away from the combative, armed subject towering above them, Officer Perez and the other cover officer did precisely what their training and judgment required. Both officers fired almost simultaneously, fatally striking the camper.
As with many tactical situations where police use serious or deadly force, the images left behind are not pretty and open the door to the second-guessing of police tactics and intentions. Worse still, in the polarized politics of the day, particularly in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, that second-guessing was taken to a new level when the district attorney, herself the subject of a police investigation for improper conduct, brought murder charges against Officer Perez and the second officer who fired his weapon on that March evening. Remarkably, although the district attorney and her office were subsequently disqualified from prosecuting the case, she was able to appoint as a special prosecutor a civil rights attorney in private practice, who has sued numerous police officers, to carry on in her stead.
Officer Perez has been left to face all of his legal fees, as neither the City nor the police department cover any criminal defense costs, even when charges arise from acts taken in the line of duty. Moreover, when he was bound over for trial, Officer Perez was automatically terminated from his employment, eliminating that source of income.
Dominique Perez is a proud former U.S. Marine who was seriously wounded in an ambush attack while serving in Iraq in 2004. He sustained life-changing injuries, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. With his military and prior law enforcement experience, he joined the Albuquerque Police Department in 2006 and was so trusted and respected that he served on the SWAT team for six years. Dominique married his high school sweetheart, with whom he has three beautiful children. This wounded warrior, a true patriot with a wealth of experience and the admiration of his peers, deserves better. His wife and children deserve more than to see their loved one bear the weight of a 2nd degree murder charge that threatens to imprison him for decades. LELDF stands proudly behind Dominique Perez.
Dominique’s September 2016 trial ended in a hung jury and a mistrial was declared. The jury was split, heavily leaning toward acquittal. In November 2016, the special prosecutor moved to dismiss the charges without prejudice. Meanwhile, the Albuquerque Journal published editorial opinions, but LELDF believed the Journal’s opinion didn’t go far enough and that Dom should have been put back to work with back pay and the costs of defending himself should have been indemnified by the city.
In February 2017, the new Albuquerque District Attorney dismissed all charges against Dom and a second officer involved in the shooting. The lessons from James Boyd’s tragic death are many and undoubtedly include how best to manage a seriously ill and combative person who threatens law enforcement with deadly weapons. Those lessons shouldn’t ignore the realities of serious threats to American law enforcers, including the risk of prosecution for doing your sworn duty.
UPDATE – June 2017: At long last, Dom was reinstated to the Albuquerque Police Department, with back pay. Now, it’s up to the city of Albuquerque to do the right thing for Dom and his family by eliminating the debts incurred by defending himself in incredibly costly criminal proceedings.