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BCSO gets on-body cameras for its deputies

Deputies Connor Otero and Angelina Navarro are each wearing a BodyWorn camera tucked into a hidden pocket in their uniforms and vests. (Jim Thompson / Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — All Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies now have on-body cameras, but the sheriff is calling them “digital evidence management systems.”

Friday afternoon Sheriff Manuel Gonzales unveiled the device his department has purchased for all 310 deputies.

The BodyWorn camera by Utility, Inc., looks like a smart phone slipped into a hidden pocket on a deputy’s chest, but a company representative said the device is locked into its functions and cannot be used to make calls.

Among its functions, in addition to recording video the devices can take photographs, upload content to the cloud, send an alert if a deputy is “down” and receive text messages or photos from dispatch.

“The traditional camera is obsolete,” Gonzales said. “Why would I put something that I feel is not going to serve the public well or the deputies well and make them safer when we have another option?”

Gonzales had historically resisted getting on-body cameras for his deputies — saying there was no evidence that they work and that he had other budget priorities. He did not touch $1 million in startup money and $500,000 in recurring annual funds the county offered him to buy cameras in 2019.

However, state legislators over the summer passed a bill mandating that all law enforcement agencies in the state be outfitted with cameras. As of the September deadline only a handful of agencies, including BCSO, still didn’t have the required equipment.

Gonzales said his team conducted extensive research before settling on Utility and it had one of the fastest implementation periods once the contract was signed.

“The point is it’s the law and we’re going to follow that law and we’re going to make the most out of it,” Gonzales said Friday. “And I think we got more bang for our buck and we’re in a better position service-wise, so everyone benefited from this.”

The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office had to get its deputies uniforms modified so they can hold a BodyWorn camera on their chests. (Jim Thompson / Albuquerque Journal)

In late November the county signed a $3.8 million five-year contract with Utility. That covers the BodyWorn devices, two cameras in each vehicle (one in the front and one in the back), hotspots for Wi-Fi in the deputy’s cruisers, tailoring so the uniforms can hold the devices, and a holster that will automatically activate the cameras when a firearm is drawn.

The sheriff’s office has also hired four more staff members to handle the devices and records requests.

The county also had to purchase SIM cards to make the devices run and they ended up buying phones (real cell phones that can be used to make calls) for 289 deputies who didn’t already have them, said Lisa Sedillo-White, deputy county manager for general services. She said that means in total the county spent almost $4.3 million to cover five years.

Utility has been around since 2000 but really started focusing on cameras in 2014, said the company’s director of law enforcement relations Jason Dombkowski.

He said they saw a big increase in sales in 2020 — as police reform movements picked up steam and legislatures began mandating cameras — and now have contracts with over 300 agencies in the country, including St. Louis city and county, Indianapolis, Colorado Springs and Arlington, Texas. He said BCSO was the first customer in New Mexico.

Dombkowski said the BodyWorn cameras BCSO purchased can be activated when a deputy is dispatched on a call, when a siren is turned on, when a deputy starts to run or get into a physical fight and when a weapon is unholstered.

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputy Angelina Navarro demonstrates how the BodyWorn camera will turn itself on, through a Bluetooth sensor, when she draws her weapon. (Jim Thompson / Albuquerque Journal)

The department can also activate “geofences” around an area that will automatically activate the camera when a deputy enters it.

“It knows if it is horizontal or vertical,” Dombkowski said. “If a deputy goes down in a line of duty it automatically activates recording. It alerts everyone that’s working that we have an officer down, it gives turn by turn directions to their location and it sends a cavalry. It also activates the camera and it live streams that video to a dispatch center to see why that deputy went down.”

The device automatically uploads video to the cloud so deputies don’t have to spend part of their shift transferring data. Dombkowski said the data is encrypted.

He said in some cases a lack of internet or cell service could pose a problem but for the most part as long as deputies are within 1,000 feet of their vehicle they should be connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot. He said the trigger that starts recording when a firearm is pulled out of its holster is connected to Bluetooth and should work no matter what.

“While every piece of technology can have a hiccup and fail we have very few,” Dombkowski said. “Mostly it’s a Bluetooth based system that triggers in proximity to the camera or it’s a GPS based trigger. … I’m not going to say it can never occur but that’s a very seldom occurrence in our capabilities.”

He said that the battery should last between 22 to 24 hours if the device is alternating between standby and activated.

Undersheriff Sid Covington said the department has crafted its policies so deputies will be required to record all law enforcement encounters with the public in line with what state law requires.

“The law is very specific on what we must record, so they’re programmed to be in line with the law,” Covington said. “When we have contact with citizens they’re activated, when we do a traffic stop, when we do an investigation, we get dispatched through call for service — that’s when they’re recording because that’s what the law requires. Same with our policy, our policy requires that.”

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