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Special session ends after approval of police camera, pandemic aid bills

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Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, right, speaks in favor of a bill to require police officers to wear body cameras as she addresses Rep. Patricio Ruilobo, D-Albuquerque, during the special session in Santa Fe on Monday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — New Mexico lawmakers concluded a historic special session Monday by granting final approval to legislation requiring police officers to wear body cameras and authorizing up to $400 million in low-interest loans to help small businesses survive.

The state House passed the two measures inside a mostly empty Capitol — two days after the Senate left the building, having already completed its work.

The bills now head to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called the Legislature into special session Thursday — though the Roundhouse remained closed to the public as a health measure.

“This special session produced hundreds of millions in investments in small businesses and local governments and economies; it accommodated and preserved much of the essential progress we have begun to make in our public education system as we begin to navigate a new global economic reality; and it launched, in earnest, an important and overdue conversation about accountability in law enforcement and in ensuring a just and safe New Mexico for all,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement shortly after adjournment.

The body camera legislation — passed Monday on a 44-26 vote — calls for law enforcement officers in New Mexico to wear cameras and activate them when responding to calls. Senate Bill 8 also would direct a state board to revoke the certification of any officer convicted of unlawful use of force.

Also approved was Senate Bill 3, which would establish a new loan program to aid small businesses and local governments damaged by the pandemic. It won bipartisan support, passing 59-5.

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, called the camera bill a critical step toward responding to the call for reform amid national protest against police brutality, triggered by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who pleaded for breath as a white officer pressed a knee into his neck.

Over the last five years, New Mexico has had the nation’s highest per-capita rate of killings by police, according to legislative analysts. Just this month, a Las Cruces police officer was charged in the death of Antonio Valenzuela, who died after the use of a vascular neck restraint.

“In the community I call home — just like so many across the country — our loved ones have faced police brutality and violence,” Lara Cadena said.

Supporters of the proposed legislation said Monday that cameras will add transparency and accountability, protecting officers from false accusations and shedding light on deadly police encounters.

Opponents assailed the measure as an unfunded mandate that would discourage people from pursuing careers in law enforcement, worsening officer shortages throughout the state.

They also argued that it wasn’t the right time to enact the legislation — because the Capitol is closed to the public amid the coronavirus pandemic, limiting the opportunity for public testimony.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, accused Democrats of rushing the bill through without adequate scrutiny.

“We haven’t had an officer walk in and make a comment. … They have grave concerns — grave concerns — with this legislation,” Townsend said.

The House was alone Monday in the Capitol. The Senate wrapped up its work Saturday and adjourned with no plans to return, unless forced to by the House.

During the special session, lawmakers pledged to ensure the proceedings were broadcast online, though technical problems interrupted each chambers’ work repeatedly Thursday, the first day of the session.

House committees accepted public testimony through a webinar program. Senate committees took written testimony by email.

But the volume of public comment was much smaller than in a typical session, when committee rooms often are packed with people ready to testify for or against bills.

“I really hope we never have to do a hybrid session with virtual participation again,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said before the House adjourned.

Camera requirement

The police body camera legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, passed the Senate last week on a 31-11 vote. Five Albuquerque or Rio Rancho Republicans joined every Democrat in favor of the bill.

But the House debate stuck closer to party lines. Just two Democrats, Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde and Candie Sweetser of Deming, crossed party lines and joined Republicans against the bill.

If signed into law, the proposal would go into effect in 90 says.

Lujan Grisham thanked legislators for passing the measure. She described it as “a big step toward ensuring law enforcement accountability.”

Each law enforcement agency would have to craft policies requiring officers who routinely interact with the public to wear cameras and imposing discipline for failure to comply.

The officers would have to activate the cameras when responding to calls or engaging with a member of the public for a law enforcement or investigative purpose. The video would be retained for at least 120 days.

Law enforcement agencies would face civil liability for spoiling evidence if their officers violate the camera policies.

The legislation doesn’t specifically ban chokeholds — an idea backed by Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas — but it more broadly addresses unlawful use of force.

It requires the state Law Enforcement Academy Board to permanently revoke the certification of any officer found guilty of a crime involving unlawful use of force, unlawful threatening of force or failure to intervene in the unlawful use of force.

The camera requirement could be costly for departments that don’t already have them. Legislative analysts estimated the cost of buying cameras at $795 each and storing video at $4,920 per camera annually, based on the experience of the State Police, where cameras are already in use.

Albuquerque police already have body-worn cameras, though Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has repeatedly resisted calls to require deputies to wear cameras.

Economic recovery

Following the camera debate, the House late Saturday approved Senate Bill 3, a proposal that would authorize the state to make low-interest loans to help small businesses and local governments. Money from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund would fund the loans.

“The point of the loan is to create economic wealth — economic recovery — in a time in which many, many businesses, through no fault of their own, are in a desperate situation,” said Rep. Marian Matthews, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.

Opponents questioned whether low-interest loans would put state funds at risk or generate a strong return on investment. They said there were better ways to help the economy, such as relaxing business restrictions.

“I think this is probably one of the worst programs we could have come up to help small business get back on their feet,” Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, said.

Other work

In all, lawmakers passed seven bills during the four-day special session.

Other measures passed include budget solvency bills aimed at absorbing a steep revenue decline caused by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices, along with legislation making changes to the state’s election system with a high-stakes general election just four months away.

Session action

Legislation passed in 2020 special session:

■ House Bill 1 — Authorizing a budget solvency plan that would keep state spending roughly flat over the next year — at $7 billion — while drawing down reserves, tapping into federal funds and engaging in other financial maneuvers.

■ House Bill 5 — Establishing a nine-member civil rights commission that would — by mid-November — recommend legal changes aimed at protecting constitutional rights.

■ House Bill 6 — Waiving some tax penalties during the pandemic and allowing for increased temporary state payments to help cities and counties if federal funds aren’t available.

■ Senate Bill 3 — Establishing a low-interest loan program for small businesses and local governments.

■ Senate Bill 4 — Enacting temporary changes for the 2020 general election and allowing independent voters to change their party affiliation at polling sites in future primary elections.

■ Senate Bill 5 — Generating an estimated $141 million in savings by canceling stalled capital outlay and road projects, among other provisions.

■ Senate Bill 8 — Requiring law enforcement officers to wear cameras.


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