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Public defenders call on BCSO to use body cameras

About 100 people marched from the Law Offices of the Public Defender on Marquette NW to Metropolitan Court, at Fourth and Lomas, on Monday, demanding that the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office start using body cameras. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The state agency tasked with providing legal representation to indigent persons charged with crimes is demanding that the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office start using body cameras.

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has long expressed opposition to requiring his deputies to wear the devices.

So, the state Law Offices of the Public Defender is asking Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez for help.

In a protest Monday, public defenders called on Torrez to put pressure for change on Gonzales by refusing to prosecute certain cases filed by the BCSO, including battery and assault on a peace officer and drug possession charges, if there is no video footage of the incident.

Torrez said in a statement through a spokesman that he supports the use of body cameras but will not decline to prosecute cases. The spokesman added that Torrez and Gonzales would meet soon to discuss body cameras.

Gonzales also said through a spokesman that he is willing to talk to Torrez about body cameras but did not say whether he has changed his position on them in light of recent police brutality protests.

Public defenders protested outside Metropolitan Court on Monday afternoon. About 100 people kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time a former Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd. Floyd, a black man, who died. Four officers have been charged in his death.

Assistant public defender Benjamin Smith used a megaphone to tell the crowd that cameras allowed people to see the deaths of Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, a black Georgia man who was shot and killed while jogging in February.

Public defender Benjamin Smith, center, and several others take part in a silent protest outside Metropolitan Court on Monday. The local public defender’s office is asking that the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office start using body cameras. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“Cameras shine a light on truth and let justice be done,” Smith said. “No more can we accept law enforcement agencies resisting body cams. They will help everyone. They will help the community, they will help law enforcement, and they will keep everyone more safe.”

New Mexico Chief Public Defender Ben Baur, also sent a letter to Torrez. A copy of the letter was provided to the Journal.

“As we have seen time and time again, sometimes the people doing the victimizing are law enforcement, and the victims are those in our community, often people of color,” the letter says. “Our criminal legal system cannot provide justice when officers are the perpetrators and not held accountable. An important step in accountability is the proper documentation of police-civilian encounters, which can be best done by video.”

Baur was also at the protest Monday.

District Attorney spokesman Adolfo Mendez said in an email that Torrez supports all law enforcement officers wearing body cameras but that his agency cannot decline to prosecute cases, partly because deputies have no control over department policies.

“Such a position would unnecessarily endanger the public without advancing the important goals of police reform,” Mendez wrote. “The District Attorney believes that the proper way for bringing about this important change is through state and local governments who exercise direct oversight over law enforcement and he stands ready to work with other stakeholders – including the Law Offices of the Public Defender – to engage in meaningful reform.”

Gonzales has declined to use body cameras, saying the video would be used to tell a one-sided story.

But BCSO spokesman Connor Otero said Monday in an email, “Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III is open to speaking with 2nd District Attorney Raúl Torrez about body cameras if he would like to have that conversation.”

Otero did not say whether Gonzales was also willing to meet with public defenders.

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