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Despite mandate, a few law enforcement agencies still don’t have body cameras

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The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office is planning to outfit deputies with smart phone body cameras in order to comply with a state bill that requires all law enforcement to wear cameras. It does not have the cameras yet. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A law requiring all New Mexico law enforcement agencies to outfit their officers with body-worn cameras goes into effect this Sunday and a handful of departments don’t have the devices ready to go.

When Senate Bill 8 was passed during the special session in June, five of the state’s 33 Sheriff’s Offices didn’t have cameras. Now it’s down to three – McKinley, Bernalillo and San Juan counties. The number is harder to pinpoint among police departments since a survey has not been done. However, AJ Forte, the executive director of the New Mexico Municipal League, said of the state’s 72 municipal police departments, everyone is “working toward being compliant.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he is expecting that cases brought by officers who don’t have cameras will not be admissible in court.

“If officers intend to enforce the law, then to do so they will have to have body cameras,” he said.

When asked how he will proceed with prosecuting cases by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies who don’t have cameras yet, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez’s office said he strongly supports the bill and urges all agencies to comply.

“While the legislation does not direct prosecutors to decline criminal cases based on non-compliance with the law, our office will immediately notify the New Mexico Attorney General and the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy if we discover that any law enforcement officers are out of compliance with the statute,” the DA’s spokeswoman, Brandale Mills-Cox, wrote in a statement.

The Law Offices of the Public Defender is also paying attention to this issue, pointing out that the cameras can provide evidence and help hold officers accountable.

“It’s common sense to use the technology – and now it’s the law,” said Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur in a statement. “Defense attorneys will definitely be challenging any case in which an officer doesn’t comply with that law.”

The bill was passed during a four-day special session in June that focused on budgetary issues, economic relief for those struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and law enforcement measures in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent nationwide protests. It requires departments to store footage for 120 days and craft policies requiring all officers to record when responding to calls or engaging with a member of the public for a law enforcement or investigative purpose.

The bill did not provide funding for agencies to purchase or upgrade their camera and data storage systems.

Funding concerns

In McKinley County, undersheriff James Maiorano III stressed that the sheriff’s office wants to comply with the mandate but the 90-day turn-around time between when the bill was passed and when it went into effect made it impossible. He said the department is doing the best it can to incorporate body-worn cameras into the in-car camera system all deputies have had for the past six years.

“We either have to choose a different manufacturer and purchase all new equipment or we have to use our current vendor, called WatchGuard, who installed the in-car system, tear out all of the existing equipment and put in new equipment that would allow a body camera to answer to that in-car camera for the purposes of downloading,” Maiorano said in an interview.

He said the McKinley County Sheriff’s Office is leaning toward the least expensive option – running between $150,000 and $200,000 – but doesn’t expect to have cameras for all 40 or so personnel until November or December. He said normally they would have taken six months to a year to consider their options before purchasing.

“Asking us to make a knee jerk purchase is very irresponsible with taxpayer money,” Maiorano said. “If I called somebody and said ‘OK there’s this new mandate, just send me $150,000 worth of your new product’ without having ever demo-ed it or tested it, I don’t have a way to know if that’s going to last us or if that’s a good expenditure of taxpayer money.”

A different scenario is playing out in Bernalillo County where Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has long resisted calls for body-worn cameras and instead outfitted deputies with belt audio recorders. BCSO has been sending out weekly updates on its search for the best option for its deputies as officials meet with vendors and other agencies across the country.

Jayme Fuller, a BCSO spokeswoman, said the department is striving for “100% participation by sworn personnel.”

“However, due to unfunded or limited funding constraints, BCSO will not be able to achieve 100% participation immediately,” Fuller wrote in an email. “At this time, the county procurement team is obtaining pricing information; meanwhile, the Sheriff’s office stands ready to receive and implement body-worn camera technology.”

She said the department has chosen to go with a smart phone camera that provides digital evidence storage, video redaction, automated activation, integration with other technologies, real-time communication and video streaming and the county is in the process of vetting vendors.

San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is also still in the process of getting cameras and spokeswoman Kristi Hughes said the department is considering its options.

“As of now we are looking at the option of adding body cameras that will sync up with our current dash cams, which we do have money allocated (for), but we are also still looking at another system that is more superior and will cost roughly $1 million more to get a complete setup,” she wrote in an email. “We do not have money allocated for that as it has not been approved yet. That total will be between $1.3 million to $1.5 million to get us all set up for the one we want, which will include 90 cameras.”

Spokespersons from Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office and Valencia County Sheriff’s Office said they have bought the cameras and are currently doling them out to all deputies.

Questions persist

Departments that have cameras in place have still had to adjust their policies in order to comply with the new law.

The New Mexico Association of Counties asked all sheriff’s offices to estimate how much they would need to spend to implement the program. Almost all counties estimated they would need to spend additional money and a spreadsheet of the counties shows they would spend an estimated total of $2,272,600 on equipment, $868,300 on data storage. The spreadsheet also estimates that counties could spend upwards of $1.1 million on staff to respond to records requests, although it’s unclear how counties arrived at that figure.

“Even counties that have programs needed to acquire some redundancy in their program… It wasn’t enough to get cameras for everyone on your staff; you had to get that plus backup,” said Grace Philips, general counsel for New Mexico Association of Counties. “Even counties that had programs probably didn’t have the depth of recording requirements which is going to use a lot of memory and generate a lot of need for storage. Certainly starting from scratch is different than not, but there’s still some onerous components to this that have nothing to do with going out and buying equipment.”

Police Chief Steve Hebbe of Farmington said his department has had body worn cameras since about six months before he was hired in March of 2014 and they upgraded their system in August 2019. He said the main challenge for his department has been updating the policies to make sure they comply with the law.

Hebbe, the president of the New Mexico Association of Chiefs of Police, said while he is on board with officers wearing cameras and he thinks they are good for departments and communities, he doesn’t like the bill itself.

“It was way too aggressive in its timeline,” he said. “The notion that it’s assumed bad faith on the part of the department to not have something recorded is shocking …”

He also said he thinks it would have been better had there been more involvement from departments around the state that could have provided input about the issues they have dealt with. Legislators have since held committee meetings to discuss the bill and in August Hebbe expressed concerns about whether officers should have their cameras recording during National Night Out – a community event – or if they are in the bathroom and talk to a civilian. He also expressed concerns about recording sensitive calls, like those involving suicide, children or domestic or sexual abuse.

At the August committee meeting legislators seemed to agree that an officer shouldn’t turn his or her camera off in sensitive situations, but that public records laws should be examined to determine whether that footage should be released.

“You don’t know when the circumstance might turn to violence or some other circumstance where the camera might be important to have on, so I don’t think it should be optional to have the camera on,” Sen. Cervantes said in an interview. “But we should perhaps put greater safeguards on the availability of the video afterwards where it might compromise an ongoing investigation, or it might be outweighed by a privacy interest to protect a victim of crime.”

He recognized that the legislators had passed the bill quickly and it wasn’t perfect, but said that it was the right time for it to pass given that most agencies in the state, and across the nation, already used body cameras.

“There was a sense that this was a timely and important thing to make law enforcement uniform around the state in terms of this technology,” Cervantes said. “I’ve done criminal prosecutions in my legal career, and as often as not a videotaped encounter leads to a quick conviction or to a guilty plea. So the video is not intended to be a burden on law enforcement but to be a tool on their belt like many other tools.”

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