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BCSO a step closer to getting body cameras

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Bernalillo County Commission has been trying for years to get the sheriff’s office to adopt the use of dashboard or body-worn cameras. In 2019, following the urging of constituents, they passed resolutions allocating first $500,000 and then $1 million for the devices.

That money is expected to finally get used.

Last month the state Legislature passed a bill requiring all law enforcement officers to wear cameras and have them activated when responding to calls. The bill is awaiting a signature by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

In response to questions about whether the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office will now purchase lapel cameras, whether additional funding is needed and the time frame to expect all deputies to be outfitted with cameras, Sheriff Manuel Gonzales pointed out that the law has not been officially passed yet. The sheriff’s office had scheduled, then canceled, a news conference on the issue.

“Over the past year, my staff has been working diligently on researching and studying the most advanced recording technology systems,” Gonzales added in a statement. “If technology is lawfully imposed on all law enforcement, I have a direction and will do everything in my power to use it for securing the constitutional rights and safety of all citizens.”

Sheriff’s deputies currently wear audio recorders on their belts.

On Tuesday, the five county commissioners transferred the $1 million they set aside last year for the initiative so that it can now be budgeted and used for purchasing cameras, support services, subscriptions and infrastructure. In addition to the $1 million in startup money the commission had also allocated $500,000 in recurring funding. Money initially set aside for dashboard cameras is likely to go toward lapel cameras in accordance with the new law.

“This is about protecting the rights of our citizens and saving the careers of our deputies,” said Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada in a news release.

While the county is now prepared to move forward, Commissioner Debbie O’Malley said they have to conduct research and plan before they are ready to make a move.

“One of the things that was really important to me in the resolution was that it’s going to be a collaboration…,” she said. “We want it to be successful as a commission, how can we help to make it successful. I think part of that is we need to be involved and not just handing money over to the department.”

The county commission also passed two resolutions, sponsored by O’Malley and Quezada, in support of the pending body camera legislation.

Report finds deficiencies

In the past Sheriff Gonzales has repeatedly resisted calls for body-worn cameras, and instead said he needs more deputies.

But a Staffing and Deployment Analysis completed by the Daigle Law group earlier this year found the department had an appropriate number of field service deputies, considering the time they are expected to take on calls.

The department is authorized to have 314 sworn and 201 full or part-time non-sworn staff and at the time of the study there was one sworn and 39 non-sworn staff positions open. The budget is $52 million in general funds and an additional $800,000 in grant funding, according to the report.

The analysis did find deficiencies in the specialty units and the criminal investigations division. The report states that the units, including the special victims unit, the Gang Intervention Recognition Patrol, the SWAT team and others, do not have clearly articulated and documented goals, policies and procedures.

“Although not within the scope of this study and with few exceptions, we find the general lack of these elements stark,” the report states. “The absence of a defined mission or objectives and/or the lack of policies, procedures and directives governing the conduct and activities of these or any unit is an anathema to contemporary law enforcement.”

The report also pointed to deficiencies in the Crime Scene Investigations unit, whose deputies it says have not been properly trained.

“Our review of training records discloses shortcomings; for example, while each detective has received digital photography and field investigator training, only two have received criminal investigator training and one detective is training in basic fingerprint processing and death investigations,” the report states. “None of the detectives are trained in forensic photography. The record is silent on DNA collection. Expertise in fingerprint and DNA collection is essential but does not appear to be a priority of this Unit.”

As for the homicide and violent crimes unit, the report found that two of the assigned detectives hadn’t been trained in basic criminal investigation and two hadn’t been trained in interrogation.

At the Bernalillo County commission meeting on Tuesday, undersheriff Sid Covington said BCSO has taken the report’s 23 recommendations into consideration and acted on the ones they are able to.

“All the recommendations regarding procedures have been addressed,” Covington said. “At the sheriff’s office we’re always looking for ways to improve staffing, policy and our service, we have addressed all of those.”

When asked for specifics on how the department is addressing deficiencies in training of CSI investigators, spokesman Joseph Montiel said BCSO has implemented a training matrix to identify which courses are needed by detectives in the unit. He said the department would not ask a detective to conduct an investigation if he or she were not confident in the abilities and training to do so.

“We are currently seeking additional training for all of our investigators. Many of the courses we would like to attend are out of state and require a great deal of funding,” Montiel wrote in an email. “COVID-19 has put a damper on training throughout our agency as travel restrictions are in place and many classes that were slated to be held locally were canceled.”

Little time to implement

Once the legislation mandating body cameras is signed, cities and counties across the state will have less than 80 days to get their officers and deputies outfitted with cameras.

It will require a speedy procurement process for cameras and video storage, crafting of policies that might need to address victims’ privacy, and training officers to use the equipment, local officials said.

Grace Philips, general counsel at the New Mexico Association of Counties, said some agencies may not be able to meet the Sept. 20 deadline.

“Some of these are really tricky issues,” she said. Having just three months “is pretty unrealistic for doing everything that needs to happen.”

Most counties, Philips said, are in pretty good shape – because they’ve already provided cameras to their deputies. But the remaining five or six counties, she said, will have to work quickly to meet the deadline.

The legislation doesn’t include an appropriation, so local governments will also have to find funding.

Commissioner O’Malley said although Bernalillo County has been hoping to get cameras on deputies for a while, no work has been done yet.

“We certainly are fortunate to have more resources as a larger county,” she said. “I don’t know if we’re ahead of the game. There have been no real discussions about it … I don’t know if we’re farther ahead than anyone else to be honest.”

The bill’s fiscal impact report estimates that cameras cost $795 each with an annual cost of $4,920 per camera for storage.

“We share concerns that some agencies have little time to implement this, with no resources,” said Henry Valdez, a prosecutor and director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of District Attorneys.

During the special session, supporters of Senate Bill 8 said local law enforcement agencies could seek state or federal funding to support the camera purchases. They also said it was important for the legislation to take effect later this year – the typical date for bills passed by the Legislature – as a matter of transparency and accountability.

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