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BCSO camera request is too much for the county

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

After years of questioning the effectiveness of body-worn cameras, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office is now seeking more such equipment than the county can afford.

A vendor proposal supported by BCSO includes purchasing 380 body-worn camera setups, recording units for 444 vehicles, new uniforms to accommodate the devices, related technical support and more.

The cost: $6.1 million for a five-year contract, according to a draft proposal from Georgia-based vendor, Utility Associates Inc.

But the county administration says that exceeds the county’s means and requested a new proposal from the same vendor. It would cover 222 body-worn camera units and 222 vehicle camera systems and fit within the county’s budget at $3.1 million.

BCSO Undersheriff Larry Koren noted that the department cannot control how much the county spends, saying BCSO will likely have to make do with less than it wants.

“It’s definitely not ideal, but it’s what we have,” he said in an interview Thursday.

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca has said she is eager to place an order for some cameras but that the county – which recently slashed about $23 million from its budget – does not have the wherewithal to fund the $6.1 million proposal. She had on Tuesday publicly floated the idea of buying fewer cameras – perhaps enough to outfit BCSO deputies who work in the field – and adding more when the county has the available money.

Koren said at the time he “shudder(s) to even think” about a limited rollout. The department wants all of its sworn personnel – including the 47 assigned to administrative services and headquarters – to have cameras. The department also wants to outfit its service aides. That’s included in the $6.1 million proposal.

“It’s imperative we try to go for 100%,” Koren told county leaders during the Bernalillo County Commission meeting on Tuesday, adding that the $6.1 million proposal was “trimmed down” from what BCSO originally sought.

The department initially wanted 450 body-worn units and 526 vehicle systems, according to a spokeswoman.

BCSO currently has 330 sworn law enforcement officers – 203 in its field services division – and 15 additional positions that are vacant, according to the spokeswoman. It has 25 non-sworn county service aides.

The push to have everyone wear cameras is relatively new.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales had long dismissed the usefulness of body-worn cameras despite public pressure and the urging of the Bernalillo County Commission.

The commission – the county’s budgetary authority – started allocating money for cameras more than a year ago, but Gonzales had never previously used it. The commission lacked authority to require it, as Gonzales is independently elected.

However, the New Mexico Legislature in June passed a bill mandating that all law enforcement agencies use body-worn cameras.

The law does not require cameras in vehicles.

In July, Gonzales rolled out a plan to comply by using smartphones as recorders rather than the customary lapel cameras.

Koren this week denied that the department was ever “opposed” to cameras, saying it was mostly waiting for better technology. Utility Associates’ systems, for example, offer automated recording so deputies do not have to worry about turning them on and off, and the body-worn technology integrates with the vehicle systems.

Utility’s first draft proposal to the county, dated Oct. 27, would have cost $1.53 million up front and required four subsequent annual payments of $1.15 million.

The commission had previously set aside $1.5 million for startup equipment costs and $500,000 for annual operations.

Morgas Baca told the commission this week that the county could not afford the $6.1 million proposal. She suggested trying to start with about 200 units to support field officers; the law specifically requires body-worn cameras for officers “who routinely interact with the public.”

But Koren in the meeting stressed the need for broader adoption as “insurance” for all commissioned officers.

Undersheriff Sid Covington, meanwhile, noted that some officers who do not normally interact with the public – like the full-time instructors at the BCSO training academy – often have other responsibilities, like SWAT, that sometimes put them out on the streets. He said the county was between a “rock and a hard place” trying to balance financial realities with complying with the new law.

Koren said Thursday that getting 222 units would force difficult prioritization.

“I have a couple of kids and I wouldn’t think of only protecting one of them; I’d want to protect both of them, and these devices offer that bit of protection,” he said.

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