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Editorial: BCSO’s camera aversion could cost public millions

Because police-involved shootings and multimillion-dollar lawsuits go virtually hand-in-hand these days, members of the Bernalillo County Commission should first:

1. Recognize that on-body cameras bring a needed level of accountability, and protection, to the public as well as law enforcement agencies, and

2. Then use their budgeting power to push the sheriff’s department to join the 21st Century and adopt the technology for the good of residents and deputies alike.

It’s understandable, if regrettable, that Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III is against his roughly 295 deputies wearing cameras: He views it as a trust issue between him and his deputies. But believing your deputies will always do the right thing, and having video proof that they did, simply isn’t comparable. And what about the trust between BCSO and the people it serves?

Cameras, which are being embraced by departments across the country, have come a long way.

Like the initial reaction to belt-mounted audio recorders – which BCSO deputies now use – the knee-jerk reaction by law enforcement to body cams is usually negative. One bad decision, they surmise, can cost a career or more.

But we’d remind Gonzales that Albuquerque police officers have, on more than one occasion, been exonerated by the imagery captured on their on-body cameras. Conversely, officers who have a pattern of cameras not being on or “malfunctioning” during key encounters raise suspicion.

Gonzales has repeatedly been asked about his resistance to body cams, and for good reason. As of today, his deputies have fired their weapons five times in the line of duty since July 4. Two suspects died, and two were wounded.

Despite the seriousness of these uses of force, Gonzales has been dismissive and sarcastic about body cams: He recently suggested they should “be placed on people who are committing these crimes.” Recent shootings include:

Sun., Aug. 6 – Four deputies and a sergeant were placed on paid administrative leave after at least one opened fire on Kendall Duran, 22, who allegedly was armed with a shotgun and had threatened his father at his East Mountains home. Duran’s arm wound was not life-threatening.

Fri., July 28 – Deputy Pete Martinez fatally shot Raymond Cruz while hanging from the front passenger door as Cruz tried to escape in a stolen vehicle during a far South Valley crime spree that involved the attempted theft of a golf cart, a home invasion and dual kidnappings.

Tues., July 25 – Deputy Charles Coggins shot and wounded 26-year-old Charles Chavez while investigating car burglaries in the South Valley. Three weeks earlier, on July 4, Coggins shot and killed Miguel Gonzalez, 28, after Gonzalez sped away from a traffic stop near a car wash.

Based on what we know now, odds are these shootings were necessary to protect officers or the public. But odds also are one or more of these will prompt a civil lawsuit, regardless of merit. And without proof a suspect threatened the lives of a deputy or others there’s little to dissuade families and attorneys from seeking a large payout for a “wrongful death” – or the county from settling out of court to avoid a potentially huge payout. A video of the encounter could change one or more of those factors.

Though the sheriff has said the county cannot afford the body cams, he plans to ask the Commission for an additional $9 million to hire 60 more deputies. Given that APD is at least 150 officers short of its budgeted sworn officers, despite good pay and benefits, it’s hard to imagine where Gonzales will find 60 recruits – but the fact he does not require body cams shouldn’t be one of his recruiting tools.

Collectively, commissioners have been content to let Gonzales call the shots on the body-cam issue. They need to step up and put a price tag on BCSO public accountability before the inevitable lawsuits make the true cost of body cams look like the deal they are.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.