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It’s time for BCSO to embrace transparency and use bodycams

In the last four months, BSCO deputies have shot nine people. Three people have been killed by BCSO in just the past two weeks. Nonetheless, Sheriff Manny Gonzales rejects calls for his agency to implement the use of body-worn cameras. Ninety-five percent of large police departments across the country now use this technology to ensure that officers use force responsibly. Why is Sheriff Gonzales so resistant to ensuring accountability among his officers?

Bernalillo County deputies have been involved in two recent high-profile cases in which we may never know what really happened at the scene. On Nov. 10, a father called 911 after his son reportedly stuck a gun in his face. According to the family, Matthew Scudero had a history of untreated mental illness and demanded deputies shoot and kill him. And that’s exactly what they did.

Then, one week later, Bernalillo County deputies observed a stolen pickup truck driving dangerously near Coors and I-40. They pursued the vehicle, eventually bringing it to a stop. But what happened next is unclear. Officials say deputies felt threatened and opened fire at the vehicle. Two people were killed and two others were taken into custody.

These incidents raise multiple red flags and demand examination. Was there a better way deputies could have responded to a family member with mental illness begging cops to end his life? Did deputies know that the man had a mental illness? Was it safe or even reasonable for deputies to engage in a vehicle chase when the alleged crime was stolen property? Why did officers feel threatened enough that they had to open fire on the vehicle, killing two men?

After these recent incidents, reporters questioned Sheriff Gonzales about his continued resistance to body-worn cameras. His response? “We speak from a position of knowledge and experience and expertise, so we know what’s best for our agency in terms of keeping people safe.” Coming from an elected official charged with protecting and serving the community, this type of resistance to transparency is very troubling.

The problem with these shootings is that we just don’t know what happened and we are asked to simply take the word of the deputies involved that these shootings were justified and that there was no alternative way to handle these calls. And the shootings may in fact be justified, but the people of Bernalillo County deserve to know the details of these events. What better way than to document them than with video evidence?

Sheriff Gonzales is right that body-worn cameras aren’t a “magic bullet,” but they are an important tool to help improve officer performance in the field. With good policies in place, recording of police-civilian encounters should promote police accountability, deter officer and civilian misconduct, and provide objective evidence to help resolve civilian complaints against police without significantly infringing on privacy.

The issue of whether requiring body-worn cameras actually changes officer and civilian behavior is complicated and requires more analysis. But we do know that several recent studies suggest the use of police body cameras may deter the use of police force and reduce citizen complaints. These studies have documented a decrease in citizen complaints, decreases in use of force by police who wore body cameras, and a decrease in assaults on officers who wore body cameras. Additionally, many police executives reported to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) that body cameras helped their agencies promote accountability and transparency.

We would hope that after a rash of shootings in the past several months, BCSO is thinking critically about how it handles these types of cases. But without video evidence, BCSO is lacking an important learning tool that could help improve performance. It’s time BCSO joins police departments across the country in using body-worn cameras to promote accountability and transparency.

Paul Haidle is an attorney and Criminal Justice Advocate at the ACLU of New Mexico