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Editorial: Body cams would protect both deputies, public

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III is taking his department, and the county’s finances, down a dangerous road with his penchant for withholding basic public information for days, dodging accountability by refusing to equip his deputies with on-body cameras, and failing to recognize that nine deputy-involved shootings in 4½ months – five of which were fatal – is a serious problem.

True to form, Gonzales waited 12 days to even identify the two men – Isaac Padilla, 23, and Martin Jim, 25, neither of whom was armed – who were fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy on Nov. 17, and to reveal that Deputy Joshua Mora, the son of Undersheriff Rudy Mora, had fired all seven shots.

Gonzales says: Six men were in the stolen truck when Albuquerque police first stopped it. Two of the men, one who had a gun, got out and ended up being arrested. The truck sped away and deputies caught up to it when it entered the North Valley. They continued the chase until they forced the truck to stop. But Mora feared for the safety of a sergeant and himself – both of whom were outside their vehicles – because the driver, Padilla, was revving the engine. That’s when Padilla and Jim were fatally shot.

The public, of course, has to accept Gonzales’ version of the story since there’s no body-cam images available to back up his claims. Although body cams have become indispensable in many law enforcement agencies – including the Albuquerque Police Department, which was an early adopter – Gonzales has refused to employ them in his department, claiming they can be edited and used against officers. He’s absolutely right, but he fails to add that they can also prove invaluable in defending an officer’s actions and provide critical evidence in both criminal and civil cases.

Instead, Gonzales says the audio recordings made from deputies’ belt recorders are sufficient – and they are indeed better than nothing when it comes to getting at the truth. District Court Judge Christina Argyres found in August that an audio recording in the case of a suspected auto burglar who was shot and injured by a deputy in July differed greatly from BCSO’s account of events. Argyres wrote, “In sum, the state presented a criminal complaint and sworn affidavit that differ extensively from what is heard on the belt tape audio.”

Interestingly, Gonzales had provided the media with an expletive-laden audio recording of that incident, along with a printout of “key points” of the recording. Although the printout detailed expletives made by the suspected auto burglar, profanities uttered by Deputy Charles Coggins were left out, proving that creative editing can cut both ways.

Incidentally, Coggins has been involved in three shootings since July, including one that resulted in a suspect’s death. The mother of that suspect is suing Coggins, the sheriff and the sheriff’s office, claiming his shooting was “excessive, unreasonable and unnecessary.”

Coggins is still on duty with the sheriff’s department. Mora has returned to duty after standard administrative leave.

Because the high number of shootings by county deputies has already drawn the attention of the ACLU, other civil rights organizations, attorneys and the public, it’s reasonable to assume they could catch the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, just as an inordinate number of shootings by Albuquerque police did a few years ago.

APD – found to have developed a “pattern and practice of excessive force” and a “culture of aggression” – is now undergoing a series of reforms under the watchful eye of the DOJ – a yearslong process that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Gonzales, whose four-year term ends next year, has an opportunity to adopt practices that improve the accountability and transparency of his department instead of hunkering down and fostering mistrust between his department and the public it serves.

It’s hard to force Gonzales, an elected official, to do anything. But the Bernalillo County Commission, which has taken a hands-off approach to the sheriff’s office, controls the purse strings and therefore has some influence on how Gonzales runs his department.

In the absence of clear moves by Gonzales to improve his department’s accountability and avoid multimillion-dollar lawsuits and potential DOJ involvement, county commissioners should recognize the troublesome patterns BCSO is embracing and respond accordingly – or prepare to explain their inaction to voters.

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.