As a child, Kari Brandenburg dreamed of becoming district attorney. Her father, James Brandenburg, worked as a prosecutor for eight years in the 1960s before becoming Bernalillo County district attorney in the 1970s, and her earliest memories were in the living room of their Albuquerque home in the evenings, her father setting a briefcase full of case files on the table, and when he went into the bedroom to change, she pounced, popping it open and looking through the gruesome crime scene photos. “My sister thought I was going to be a serial killer,” she said.
During breaks from school, she accompanied her father to work. She loved watching him in the courtroom and she begged him to let her skip class on trial days. She savored the thrill of police officers knocking on their door late at night, asking him to approve an urgent warrant. “They looked like heroes,” she once told a local reporter.
At first her father welcomed her interest in his profession — how cute his little girl’s obsession with this serious, button-down, bloody, male-dominated world. But as her obsession carried on into high school and college, he grew worried. He did not want his daughter to become a lawyer and he did not think it was even possible for her to become a DA. He once told a local reporter, “I’ve always felt that a woman is at a disadvantage when you’re in the art of persuasion.” Judges and jurors, he believed, “are more inclined to give credibility to the man.”
She became a lawyer anyway, and in 2001 she became the first woman to serve as district attorney in Bernalillo County, the biggest county in New Mexico. She brought home high-profile convictions and rose to statewide prominence. She won every election she ran in, four in a row, establishing herself as the longest-serving DA in county history. She aimed to hold the seat for six terms, she once declared, and many believed that it was hers to keep for as long as she wanted. She was a golden child of the state’s Democratic Party machine. Newspaper columnists and the local political set floated her name for Congress and governor.
A photo of Jim Brandenburg while in office, exact date unknown.
Courtesy Brandenburg Family
And now, on a bright morning in March, all those good years were rushing back. Kari Brandenburg stood behind a podium and reminded everybody at the press conference how far she had come. “I remember back in the days when I had to convince people I was a lawyer,” she said. “I had a client: ‘Are you really a lawyer?’ ‘I promise I am.’”
She paused for laughter that did not come. She looked around at the barren ground-floor room of the district attorney's office building, with empty walls, fluorescent lights, and a window cloaked by gray blinds. The half dozen or so reporters sat evenly spaced out at the long wooden tables in front of the television cameras along the wall in the back. She did not maintain the stoic, self-righteous demeanor common among district attorneys. No, Kari Brandenburg was bubbly and warm, even when she talked about “the challenges.”
This, her 16th year in office, had been a hard year. The crime rate had increased. Thousands of cases had been dismissed because of her office’s mismanagement. Her son was in prison. Two of her top deputies had been diagnosed with cancer and were currently undergoing chemotherapy. And she was no longer on speaking terms with the city's police chief.
She had done so much for the Albuquerque Police Department! She had locked up men who shot at officers, defended officers when they faced scandal, protected officers when they killed civilians. She had gone nearly 14 years without charging a single officer for a fatal shooting. And so when she decided to charge two of them with murder in January 2015, she did not expect her longtime allies to turn on her. But indeed those longtime allies went on to orchestrate “a complete snow job against her,” as former Albuquerque police Sgt. Tom Grover put it. They attacked her reputation. They stripped from her the biggest case of her career. They resisted the authority of her office. And, she told those around her, they threatened her family’s safety. It was a surreal turn of events: a district attorney scared of her city’s police department.
The challenges wore her down, and beneath the warm smile and energetic voice was a weary, defeated woman.
“I bet you all don’t know what I’m going to say next,” she said to the room, arms up and palms open in mock anticipation. “I want you all to know that I’m not going to be running for a fifth term for district attorney.”
In her mind, she was paying the price for charging those officers with murder. She had stood up to a stubborn police department at a time of national unrest, trudging forward despite the political consequences. In her mind, she was a martyr, made to suffer for doing what was right. When a reporter asked why she was stepping down, she offered a simple answer: “I’m tired.”
Kari Brandenburg, the district attorney in Bernalillo County, speaks to reporters, Dec. 8, 2014.
Russell Contreras / AP Photo
When her father was the DA in the late 1970s, around 20 lawyers worked in the office and fewer than 1,500 inmates were locked up in New Mexico state prisons. By then, America’s violent crime rate had risen for 20 years and the tough-on-crime era was dawning. Over the following decades, state and federal politicians across the country passed laws that led to more arrests and longer sentences and expanded the criminal justice system. When Brandenburg took office in 2001, around 100 lawyers worked in the office and the state’s prisons held nearly 5,000 inmates. By her third term, the prison population had jumped to around 7,000.
But while the criminal justice system transformed dramatically from James’ first day in office to Kari’s, the relationship between police and prosecutors remained steady. Officers investigated crimes, caught the suspects, then handed their files over to prosecutors, who turned those files into believable and constitutional narratives for a jury’s consumption. The two agencies have served as allies throughout the history of modern American law enforcement. This relationship breeds conflicts of interest, and the recent past is cluttered with examples of prosecutors granting special leniency to their allies in blue facing criminal allegations. For many years this state of affairs played on without ground-shaking scrutiny.
Ferguson changed things. The national outrage sparked by the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014 pushed police shootings into the center stage of public discourse. Prosecutors faced heightened attention for how they handled these cases. This new political landscape has created a growing rift between police and prosecutors across the country. Now many district attorneys find themselves caught between the public's desire for police accountability and their law enforcement partner’s long-held expectations for special treatment.
It has become politically beneficial to hold police accountable in many cities across post-Ferguson America. Earlier this year, during the first election cycle of this new era, voters punished incumbents who failed to bring charges against officers involved in questionable shootings. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty, who oversaw the Tamir Rice case, lost his primary race by 11%. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who oversaw the Laquan McDonald case, lost her primary race by 30%.
Meanwhile, mayors in Baltimore, San Francisco, and Chicago gave in to protesters’ calls to fire their police chiefs. The ousting of these chiefs and prosecutors has emerged as the most tangible impact yet of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born in 2013 after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin and rose to national prominence during the Ferguson protests. In response, police departments and unions have closed ranks and fought back.
Baltimore police turned against State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, the daughter of two cops, after she charged six officers for the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015. A police union magazine published a column accusing her mother of drug use and her father of robbery. “Nobody wants to work” on Mosby’s security detail, one Baltimore cop said. “I haven’t found a cop who supports Mosby.”
San Francisco police turned against District Attorney George Gascón, a former police chief, after he led a blue-ribbon panel investigating racial bias in the department in February 2016. The police union president claimed that he had heard Gascón make racist remarks at a dinner six years earlier. A union press release blamed an uptick in property crime on Gascón, who “instead of fighting a war on crime, is fighting a war on the police department.”
“A shift has been made to where a prosecutor has a responsibility first and foremost to the community rather than aligning themselves solely with law enforcement,” said Ahmad Assed, a defense attorney in Albuquerque. “The issue now is how we are going to have law enforcement agencies work hand in hand with prosecutors. Is it now too much of an uncomfortable relationship?”
"We learned that sometimes we are punished for doing the right thing.”
This question burns hottest in Albuquerque, where the rift between police and prosecutors is more extreme than anywhere else in the country. Brandenburg was quick to note that she has no beef with rank-and-file officers. She was just as quick to note how little respect she has for Police Chief Gorden Eden and other high-level police officials, who she said “allowed themselves to be used,” and just as quick to note what she thinks of Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, of whom she said: “I think he’s a psychopath.”
She charged two officers for fatally shooting James Boyd in March 2014.“That had a lot of consequences for me,” she said. “Some of us lost our belief in the system, the idea that as long as you do the right thing, you won’t be accused of doing wrong. But we learned that sometimes we are punished for doing the right thing.”
Her clash with the police department was a shock to many of her allies, who observed that she had gone 14 years without major controversy to that point. A few of those allies sat with her for dinner at a restaurant in the Sandia Casino on the outskirts of town one evening in May, and among that friendly company, the discussion quickly turned to her tensions with the Albuquerque Police Department.
“She hit a brick wall when she tried to hold police accountable,” said Pete Dinelli, a political mainstay who over the years has served as a city councilor, deputy city attorney, assistant attorney general, chief deputy district attorney, state judge, and director of public safety. “We really worked hard to build that department and now it’s one of the worst in the country.”
“I think they believed they would keep hitting me in the stomach and at some point I would stop getting up,” Brandenburg said.
“It’s an us-versus-them dynamic,” said Greg Payne, a former city councilor and state house representative. “It is deeply embedded in the culture of that department.”
“They thought that they could intimidate me so that I would resign,” Brandenburg said. “Have you ever heard of a police department try to take over a DA’s office?”
“Police have viewed prosecutors as extensions of themselves,” Payne said. “And for them that means any wrongdoing in their department has to be swept under the rug by the DA. They went after you because you didn’t do what they wanted you to do.”
Brandenburg shook her head, raised her eyebrows, cracked an astonished smile, and said, “Can you believe how dangerous it would be if police departments start running district attorney’s offices?”
Kari Brandenburg in her office in Albuquerque. A portrait of her father, who held the same office from 1972 to 1976, hangs on the wall behind her desk.
Steven St. John for BuzzFeed News
How strange to hear District Attorney Kari Brandenburg deem the Albuquerque Police Department an adversary when for 14 years she had served as its loyal ally. “She spent her entire career carrying their water for them,” said David Correia, an American studies professor at the University of New Mexico.
She was good friends with the previous police chief, Ray Schultz, who held the job for eight years until July 2013. They regularly went to lunch and met to discuss big cases. Their top deputies convened on a monthly basis. “We worked very well together,” Schultz said. “It’s important to keep a good relationship between the two offices.”
This relationship was especially beneficial for the police department as the number of police shootings dramatically increased. According to Dinelli, a city attorney at the time, this rise in police-induced bloodshed was born on August 18, 2005, the day officers Richard Smith and Michael King were fatally shot on the job. In a meeting about the incident, Dinelli said, “I remember Schultz saying, ‘This’ll never happen on my watch again.’ So they trained officers to become more aggressive. It took about five years for all of that to seep into the culture of the department and 2010 is when you saw the seeds that had been planted.”
From 1986 to 2006, APD officers killed, on average, about three people per year. In 2010, officers fatally shot nine people and wounded five more. From 2010 through the end of 2014, officers shot 41 people, killing 28 of them. Over that stretch, Albuquerque's rate of fatal police shootings per capita was eight times higher than New York City’s and twice as high as Chicago’s. Many of these shootings were questionable enough that the city paid out $30 million in civil judgments and settlements. The Department of Justice opened an investigation and concluded that “a majority” of the city’s recent police shootings were unconstitutional. "Albuquerque police officers shot and killed civilians who did not pose an imminent threat," the DOJ’s report stated. “A lack of accountability in the use of excessive force promotes an acceptance of disproportionate and aggressive behavior towards residents.”
Through it all, Brandenburg did not charge any officers for any shootings. “The DA’s office clearing people led to more and more shootings because they kept getting away with them,” said Joe Fine, a local civil rights attorney. Brandenburg handled police shootings by sending the cases to “investigatory” grand juries, which operate differently from traditional grand juries. In a traditional grand jury, a prosecutor presents a selection of evidence, recommends a charge, and deliberately leads the jurors to indict the defendant on that charge. There is no defense attorney in the room. Under these circumstances, New York Court of Appeals Judge Sol Wachtler famously joked, any good prosecutor can get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.”
She recalled one woman who stopped her in the grocery store: “She told me she thought it was good the cops were shooting these criminals.”
In the “investigatory” grand juries for police shootings, Brandenburg’s prosecutors did not give jurors the power to indict on criminal charges. Instead, the prosecutor told the jurors that they were tasked with determining whether the shooting was “justified” or “unjustified.” If the grand jury ruled “unjustified,” then Brandenburg would take the case to a traditional grand jury for a potential indictment. The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office had used this process for police shootings since the late 1980s and over that time not a single grand jury returned an “unjustified” verdict. Prosecutors met with officers before the hearings, guided them through their justifications on the stand, and rarely challenged their story.
Brandenburg argued that because investigatory grand juries have subpoena power and hear testimony under oath, they are more fit than prosecutors to figure out whether a shooting is justified. She defends the practice to this day, even though in 2013 a panel of judges ordered that her office end it. “The appearance of a lack of impartiality is impossible to avoid, especially given that the procedure is used only for police officers and specifically limited to officer-involved shootings,” the judges wrote in a letter to Brandenburg.
The new process required prosecutors to decide for themselves whether there is probable cause to charge an officer for a crime. Brandenburg’s office took on 100 to 200 hours of additional work to review each police shooting, she said. Yet the new process brought the same old results. From January 2013 through February 2014, APD officers shot nine people. Brandenburg’s office did not find probable cause to prosecute any of them. “The case law is pretty liberal in giving cops broad discretion,” Brandenburg said. “If we don’t think we can win the case, we’re wasting everybody’s time. We’re not saying that everything was appropriate. We’re just saying that we can’t move forward with the prosecution.”
The numbers backed her up, she said. She recalled a Washington Post story that found that of the thousands of officers involved in shootings over the last decade, only 54 were charged. “This is pretty universal,” she said. “This doesn’t mean the system’s wrong. I think police officers need broader discretion.” She believed that most of her constituents agreed with her. She recalled one woman who stopped her in the grocery store: “She told me she thought it was good the cops were shooting these criminals.”
A white cross marks the spot where James Boyd was killed by the police in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Steven St. John for BuzzFeed News