Did Albuquerque Police Delete Damning Body Camera Evidence?
Only Albuquerque police really know what happened early one April morning in 2014, when officer Jeremy Dear shot and killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes, a suspected car thief, after a foot chase.
Dear’s body camera was off, he said, and the footage from body cameras of his fellow officers doesn’t give a clear picture of the teenager’s death. While Hawkes’ family accused police of a cover-up, their best evidence—the footage from the other body cameras—is either conspicuously absent or incomplete.
Now, one former police department records keeper is claiming the damaged or missing footage was deliberate, and alleging proof lies in the computer software—called Evidence.com—that the department uses to manage its body cameras.
“I have reviewed the lapel camera video [which two officers] provided to APD Forensic after the shooting of Mary Hawkes,” Reynaldo Chavez said in a court statement. “Based on my knowledge of Evidence.com, I can see that [one officer]'s lapel camera video has been altered by changing the gradient of the resolution on the video. I can see as much as the first twenty seconds of [the other officer’s] video has been deleted.”
Chavez’s allegations are included in a sworn affidavit in the family’s civil lawsuit against the police department alleging Hawkes’ wrongful death at the hands of the Albuquerque PD.
In the affidavit, made public by New Mexico In Depth, Chavez accuses his former employer of altering or destroying evidence related to multiple high-profile police shootings, including that of Hawkes.
Before he was fired in 2015—he claimed in a lawsuit that his firing was retaliation for reporting an alleged police plot to destroy evidence—Chavez spent four years handling the Albuquerque Police Department’s public records requests. Chavez and his team were responsible for releasing public records, including police reports, photo evidence, and body camera footage. But in three high-profile cases two years ago, Chavez said his superiors blocked him from releasing evidence.
In a response to Chavez's lawsuit, the City of Albuquerque said: "There is always more to the story when the City finds it necessary to fire an employee. That is true here, as well. The City takes these claims seriously, especially as they relate to our responsibilities under public record laws. We are committed to those responsibilities and are constantly striving to improve transparency and responsiveness to public requests."
In addition to Hawkes’ killing, Chavez claimed in his affidavit that evidence was altered or destroyed in the high-profile killings of an alleged probation violator and a mentally ill man, who was killed during a raid on his homeless encampment. All three incidents prompted public backlash, partially due to the lack of body camera evidence to support what police described as justifiable shootings.
Chavez claimed this lack of evidence was deliberate. When he received records requests related to the three controversial killings, members of the city’s legal team ordered him to “deny, withhold, obstruct, conceal or even destroy records,” Chavez alleges in the affidavit.
The City of Albuquerque did not yet respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Chavez's latest claims. Reached by email, the Albuquerque Police Department said they planned to release a statement on Monday. We will update this article when that statement becomes available. To a local outlet, the police department noted that “the city questions the motives and disputes the accuracy of the information relayed by Mr. Chavez. The city stands prepared to defend against these allegations that records or evidence have been compromised.”
New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act allows members of the public to request police and government records, without stating the purpose of their request. As records supervisor, Chavez was responsible for producing police materials as requested by the public.
In his affidavit, Chavez says the orders to conceal evidence came from the top. He claims he was told by a deputy city attorney that evidence to the three shootings wouldn't be released, and that the attorney allegedly added, “there are items we will just not release and we will pay the fines or lawsuits.”
Chavez says he was ordered to create barriers to “baffle” journalists and members of the public who pursued the records. His supervisors allegedly encouraged him to invent loopholes under which records could be withheld, or ask journalists for “requirements that were not needed such as case numbers”.
Meanwhile, Chavez claimed, the sought-after evidence was either being edited or eliminated altogether.
“We can make this disappear,” Chavez claims one of his superiors allegedly said of a camera’s memory card after Chavez received a public records request for pictures from that camera. The tiny SD cards were easy to alter, Chavez said.
“I heard from many people working in and around the APD Evidence Unit that SD Cards were easily ‘bleached’ or ‘deleted’ or ‘altered’ by APD personnel in the Forensics Unit,” he wrote in his affidavit.
Chavez says he began to question how evidence could have potentially been altered, especially from officers’ body cameras.
Evidence.com is a subscription service run by stun gun company Taser. The software, which is sold alongside Taser-brand body cameras, allows police departments to upload and store footage. Albuquerque Police use the Taser surveillance program, reportedly alongside police departments in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, and London.
Evidence.com also allows users to edit and delete body camera footage. The tools can theoretically be used to highlight important frames of a video, or blur faces in order to protect identities. But Chavez, who had extensive training with the program, claims he saw the editing software put to more sinister use.
“I was able to see, via the Evidence.com audit trail, that people had in fact deleted and/or altered lapel camera videos,” he alleged in the affidavit, accusing detectives of training officers, particularly “those in the Forensics Unit and the Major Gangs unit how to edit video, meaning you could delete video and add images and blur video and/or corrupt video so they were either not usable or altered.”
Chavez claims that officers in these units were allegedly instructed not to file crime reports until after their body camera footage was viewed. If the footage presented the officers in a good light, Chavez said, they could release the film in the name of transparency. If the footage was problematic, they were allegedly encouraged to claim a faulty camera.
In the case of Hawkes, Dear claimed he had shot her in self-defense and that a faulty cable had caused his camera to malfunction—an account that was backed up by other officers on the scene. Dear claimed that a stolen car led to a foot chase at the trailer park where Hawkes lived. Dear said Hawkes pulled a gun on him at short range, giving him no choice but to shoot in self-defense.
But Hawkes’ family is claiming a cover-up in its civil lawsuit against the police department. According to an autopsy, Dear’s three shots entered Hawkes from the side, an indication that she might not have been facing the officer. The gun allegedly found on Hawkes’ body also had no DNA or fingerprint evidence that conclusively tied the teenager to the firearm (a detail which has been confirmed by police).
In addition to the two body camera records that he accused of being edited, Chavez also allegedly found fault with the footage from a third officer on the scene, “I can tell looking at [the] video that it has been altered by using the functionalities within Evidence.com where you can make the slides of the video blurry or unclear,” he said in his affadavit. “I know that these alterations to Taser lapel camera video are possible using Evidence.com and that an audit trail on these videos is also available on Evidence.com.”
Chavez made similar observations about the case of Jeremy Robertson, one of the three police shooting cases for which he alleges he was instructed to suppress public information. Robertson had allegedly violated his probation when police spotted him and took chase in July 2014. Officers shot and killed him, claiming he had pointed a gun at them, although Robertson’s family said he had been shot from behind while climbing a fence.
Chavez said he reviewed surveillance footage from a nearby salon and he claimed that film had also been edited.
“Based on my knowledge of Evidence.com, I can see the salon video has the tell-tale signs that it has been altered and images that had been captured are now deleted,” he claimed in the affidavit. Among those the missing frames was the most important image in Robertson’s case.
“One of the deleted images captured the officers shooting Jeremy Robertson,” Chavez said.