Albuquerque's Police Chief Ran a Red Light and Broadsided a Car. A Review Board Says It Was Unavoidable.

Harold Medina, who severely injured a driver while fleeing a gunman, ordered a thorough investigation of his own conduct.


The Albuquerque Police Department's Fleet Crash Review Board, which consists of four officers and a civilian, has unanimously deemed a February 17 accident involving Police Chief Harold Medina "non-preventable." That conclusion, a local TV station reports, "got some city councilors asking questions" during an Albuquerque City Council meeting on Wednesday night.

It is not hard to see why. Medina severely injured the driver of a car that he broadsided with his unmarked, department-issued pickup truck after he ran a red light while fleeing an altercation between two pedestrians that escalated into gunfire. He did that two weeks after promising a thorough investigation of allegations that Albuquerque police officers had for years made DWI cases disappear in exchange for payoffs. The alleged corruption, which the FBI is investigating, probably "started decades ago," Medina said while promising to "leave no stone unturned and make sure that we get to the bottom of this." But his fishy account of the crash has further undermined public confidence already shaken by the DWI corruption scandal.

Cops who were called to the scene of Medina's accident initially were puzzled. "Welcome to the shit show," one officer says to another in a body camera video. "I have no idea what is going on," says the other. But surveillance camera footage of the crash clarified matters. That video is hard to reconcile with the notion that the collision was unavoidable, and it contradicts the account that Medina gave a few days afterward. Those inconsistencies evidently did not faze Medina's underlings on the Fleet Crash Review Board, which suggests he may be exonerated by internal investigators despite his apparent violations of department policy.

The soundless surveillance video shows two men fighting near the intersection of Alvarado Drive NE and Central Avenue, a busy, four-lane street. Medina and his wife, who are on their way to a Saturday press conference, are waiting at a red light on Alvarado Drive, north of Central Avenue. A flock of birds can be seen taking flight, perhaps in response to the gunfire that Medina reported. Then Medina drives through the red light, crossing the westbound lanes of Central Avenue through a gap between two cars, forcing one of the drivers to brake abruptly.

At this point Medina is no longer in the shooter's line of fire. But instead of waiting at the median for a break in the eastbound traffic, he barrels through that side of the road, colliding with the side of a gold 1966 Mustang driven by 55-year-old Todd Perchert, who is on his way to a classic car meetup. The collision spins and totals the Mustang, which comes to rest on the south side of Central Avenue.

In a self-exculpating video that Medina recorded after the crash, he says, "I looked to my left, and the intersection was cleared." That is plainly not true, since he drove in front of a westbound car that was entering the intersection, forcing the driver to stop suddenly in order to avoid a collision. As he was crossing the eastbound side of Central Avenue, Medina says, "I thought that…the car was going to pass before I got there, and it did not. And unfortunately, I struck the vehicle. The occupant of the other vehicle was injured, and it's just another sign of how gun violence sometimes impacts our community."

According to Medina, the crash was caused not by his own carelessness but by the danger he was fleeing. He had taken a detour to have a look at "a homeless encampment on Alvarado north of Central," planning to call an underling about it. "My wife stated, 'Look, those two homeless individuals are about to get into a fight,'" he says. "My wife stated, 'gun, gun.' I looked up, and I could hear that a shot had been fired, and I saw an individual that was holding a firearm pointing it at another individual who was directly in line with my wife." Medina decided "the best thing I could do was get my wife out of the way and regroup and see what the best response would be." As Medina sees it, the gunman caused the crash.

A February 20 press release from the Albuquerque Police Department offers the same take. As Medina and his wife were waiting at the intersection, it says, they "witnessed two individuals fighting." They "then saw one of the individuals pull out a gun," and "shots were fired." Since "Chief Medina and his wife were in the direct line of fire," he "took evasive action through the intersection to get his vehicle away from the gunfire." The official account of what happened next elides any consideration of Medina's culpability: "A gold Mustang was traveling eastbound on Central and continued forward as Chief Medina was entering the intersection and the vehicles collided."

Former Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, a former crash investigator, saw things differently after reviewing the video of the crash. "It's clear by the video" that Medina's description of what he did is not accurate, White told KOAT, the ABC affiliate in Albuquerque. "He cuts off a vehicle immediately. That's westbound on Central. Had to slam on its brakes. You can see that. And then he bolts across what is potentially one of the busiest roadways in the state of New Mexico and broadsides a car."

As White sees it, "the chief was not looking" because "he was distracted by something." He added, "I don't mean the shooting" because Medina was "already across the intersection" when he collided with Perchert's car.

The Fleet Crash Review Board nevertheless ratified Medina's account by deeming the collision "non-preventable." City Councilor Louie Sanchez, who unsuccessfully proposed a vote of no confidence in Medina on Wednesday, was skeptical. "If the chief would have made a police action and executed his police powers and made an arrest immediately, we would not have a traffic accident," Sanchez said. "We would not have an investigation. How can you say that this is not preventable?"

Sanchez was objecting to the narrative that emerged after the crash, which portrayed Medina as a heroic public servant instead of a reckless driver. When he got a call about a shooting involving Medina that day, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told reporters, he feared the worst. "Fortunately, in this case, I quickly learned he was OK and what happened with the situation," he said. "And I think first and foremost, I'm grateful our chief is OK." Overlooking the fact that Perchert definitely was not "OK," Keller then praised Medina's courage and dedication:

The chief of police is arguably the most important person right now in these times, in our city, in our state. And so, what he did today, I think, also was something he does every day and our officers do every day, which is he is out on the front line. He is doing what he can to make our city safe. And this is actually him on a Saturday morning—disrupting an altercation, a shooting. Trying to do what's right. Trying to make sure that folks are OK after on scene. This is above and beyond what you expect from a chief. And I'm grateful for Harold Medina.

As Sanchez pointed out, Medina was not "disrupting an altercation." By his own account, he was fleeing the altercation because of the threat it posed to him and his wife. And while Keller claimed Medina was "trying to do what's right," "doing what he can to make our city safe," and "trying to make sure that folks are OK," Perchert and his wife, Danielle, understandably had a different impression.

"I am disappointed in the actions of our police chief and the reaction of Mayor Tim Keller praising the chief's decisions," Todd Perchert said at a press conference last week. Perchert, who was taken to a local trauma center after the crash, suffered a broken collarbone and shoulder blade, eight broken ribs, a collapsed lung, lacerations to his left ear and head, and gashes on his face. He underwent seven hours of surgery and was hospitalized for nearly a week. "It's been constant pain since the crash," he said. "I haven't driven much since the accident."

Because of his injuries, Danielle Perchert said, they had to cancel an anniversary trip for which they had been saving for two years. "We live an active lifestyle," she said. "We are always doing something. Gardening or working in the yard, hiking, going on long walks with our dogs, traveling. And Todd had even started training to run half marathons again. But now he is in constant pain and has limited mobility. I see on a daily basis his severe pain and the deformity of his left shoulder where the collarbone and shoulder blade are broken."

Danielle Perchert was dismayed by the official response to the crash. "My husband's injuries, due to the chief's reckless disregard for the lives and safety of others, were secondary and blown off as of no concern by the APD spokesperson and the mayor," she said. Medina "was running away, and my husband [was] injured because he was running away…It still hurts to this day to think about it."

KOAT notes that "some say officers have been fired for similar conduct." In 2017, for example, an Albuquerque police officer "was rushing with lights and sirens to a call of a man armed with a machete when a car pulled out in front of him. The person driving that car died in the crash. The city fired the officer and paid more than $3 million in a civil suit." In 2013, a 21-year-old woman died after another Albuquerque officer "sped through a red light at Paseo Del Norte and Eagle Ranch, hitting her car." The city paid $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit by her family. The officer was convicted of careless driving and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

It's not clear whether Albuquerque's residents will ever see a trustworthy examination of Medina's conduct. "Why is this matter being investigated internally?" the Percherts' attorney, James Tawney, asked at the press conference. He suggested that the New Mexico State Police (NMSP) should investigate the crash instead.

At Wednesday's city council meeting, the local news site ABQ RAW reports, city administrators said "they have now asked State Police to review the case." The story snarkily adds that "they did not say if they formally asked NMSP to review it or if they were just hoping NMSP [was] watching the council meeting and would be intrigued to look into the crash."

In addition to the dubious crash board review, Superintendent of Police Reform Eric Garcia is conducting an internal affairs investigation. Tom Grover, a local attorney who represents police officers accused of misconduct (including a former officer implicated in the DWI corruption scandal), sees several possible policy violations. In an interview with KOAT, "Grover said some of the violations the chief could be in trouble for include having his wife in the car and taking police action, not having his radio turned on and not turning on his lights and siren" when "he ran the red light."

Medina also belatedly activated his body camera. "My camera wasn't on at the beginning of this incident," he says in his video. "I think that everybody's been held accountable for cameras, and I wanted to make sure that I was investigated….Did I have time to turn this on? Was it proper for me to have it on before then?"

The police chief, in other words, ordered an investigation of his own conduct. "The city hopes to instill and ensure transparency and accountability," ABQ RAW observes. "They are doing this by making sure their own department staff looks very hard at this situation." Garcia, "a 34 year sworn officer who is the hand picked Superintendent of Police," will "formally request that the Internal Monitor, former Judge Victor Valdez (also hand picked)…review the entire investigation." James Ginger, who serves as a court-appointed monitor under a 2014 settlement agreement with the Justice Department stemming from a use-of-force investigation, also is supposed to evaluate Garcia's work.

"Our processes in Internal Affairs are consistent for every level of officer in the department, including our chief of police," Garcia told the city council on Wednesday. "To ensure complete transparency, we are adding multiple layers of review above and beyond what is required in similar situations."

In a recent Albuquerque Journal opinion piece, Antoinette Suina, whose 6-year-old son was killed in a 2017 crash involving an Albuquerque police officer, says Garcia, then the department's deputy chief, was assigned to the case but did not treat it as an urgent matter. "Based on my experiences, and given Eric Garcia's apathetic attitude toward our case, I find it hard to believe that he is capable of conducting a fair and impartial investigation into Chief Medina's accident," Suina writes. "With Medina's consistent lack of accountability, and disregard for his own actions which is evidenced by no outside review, there will not be real transparency or significant consequences."

Last month, the city council narrowly rejected a proposal for an independent task force to investigate the crash. "I would hope that there is no bias," City Councilor Renee Grout, one of the four members who favored that proposal, said at the time, "but it appears like there possibly could be." It does appear like that.