As interactions between the police and the people they deal with have blown up in national issues, the Santa Fe Police Department will likely be the next law enforcement agency in New Mexico to require all of its officers to wear lapel cameras.
It’s not a done deal, but Police Chief Eric Garcia says it’s almost certain it will be soon. The department was scheduled to propose a deal to the city’s IT Governance Committee on Tuesday to purchase 90 lapel cameras and two docking stations for around $83,000, but the meeting was postponed.
Once the committee gives its OK to the contract – possibly next week – it will go to the full City Council. With the council’s approval, Garcia says finance personnel for the department will work to get orders done and predicts officers will have the cameras by early August. The council is scheduled to take up the proposal July 29.
“Because of everything that is going on around the country, law enforcement agencies have been evaluating how to help out their officers and constituents across the board,” Garcia said. “The City Council has been in support of the program from Day 1 when I introduced it.”
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s a good thing,” said Sgt. Matt Martinez, president of the Santa Fe Police Officers Association. “It’s another tool to assist law enforcement, and some officers already wear cameras. They’re protecting themselves from frivolous lawsuits and complaints that could have been avoided.”
The cameras, which will be purchased from Kansas-based Digital Ally, are intended to capture police interactions with the public and keep both sides accountable, Chief Garcia said.
“It’s a check and balance for our officers to use when they go to court,” Garcia said. “It’s a check and balance when the citizens complain about the personnel. There are a handful of complaints that come into the agency and those complaints … some of those complaints were resolved by having that check and balance.”
Garcia said his officers will still mainly rely on video from existing dashboard cameras in their patrol cars. He said he wants the lapel cameras to be turned on when an officer has an interaction that is outside the range of the dash-cam.
“I expect this to be a secondary tool for the officers,” Garcia said. “The primary tool is going to be the dash-cam video. When the officers are running, and they get around the block and they’re still chasing after the person on foot, then I expect them to turn it on.”
Garcia said the department is still working on a policy that formally dictates when lapel cams should be activated.
Steven Farber, a Santa Fe defense attorney and former city councilor who won the lawsuit that led to requiring Santa Fe police cruisers to have dash-cams in 2000, says lapel cameras are useless unless officers use them on a consistent basis.
“The degree of the success of this program is going to be affected by the compliance of the police officers,” Farber said. “A key component is making sure leadership at the police department requires that they be used. There has to be punishment for officers that don’t record every public encounter.”
Martinez, the police union head, said it might take officers some time to adjust to the new equipment and people should be forgiving if an officer forgets to turn the camera on in the heat of the moment.
“The community has to give police officers a little latitude,” Martinez said. “In the beginning, we have to give our officers a little leeway when wanting them to turn it on. It’s hard enough to remember to do 5,000 things when something dynamic is happening. Eventually, it will become second nature.”
Farber, however, said there should be no time for officers to get acquainted with turning their cameras on. Once the policy is implemented, he says officers should be held fully responsible.
“That’s an excuse to avoid compliance,” Farber said. “If there is an advance notice that these cameras are going to be required, then the officers should turn it on. It should be standard operating procedure. The failure of police to follow protocol could lead to dismissal of cases.”
Chief Garcia agrees that there should be some leeway at first, but says there will still be discipline for officers who violate policies. “You have to have a phase-in period, just like with the dash cam,” Garcia said. “When you implement new tools – new cars, new digital equipment – you have to have a phase-in period. We as an agency expect the officer to hopefully turn it on right away but, if it’s not turned on at all, we’ll implement progressive discipline.
“Policies and procedures are not just made up. There will be repercussions for the officers if they had the opportunity to turn it on as a secondary tool and they didn’t.”
Storing video an issue
Besides transparency and accountability, one of the biggest reasons agencies are adopting on-body cameras is to have evidence when the time comes for the prosecution of a defendant arrested by an officer. That means video has to be stored somewhere, possibly for a number of years.
Garcia says SFPD is likely going to have a large physical storage device as opposed to subscribing to a cloud-based service, which he believes will save the city money in the long run.
“(Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden) said he’s paying a ridiculous amount of money for mass storage because it’s cloud-based,” Garcia said. “I think (physical storage) is the direction we’re going right now because that seems to be the best way we can do it right now.”
City Information Technology and Telecommunications director Renee Martinez says the police department already has a mass storage system, but more memory space might be needed in order to handle a high volume of video content. “We already have a storage system but, to retain stuff, we will need to add more capacity to that in the coming months,” she said.
Garcia said the storage unit will be housed in the basement of the police station. Data will be uploaded when a camera is plugged into one of the docking stations. He said he’s going to recommend that video is uploaded at the end of every shift; he at least wants it uploaded when the storage on the camera is full. He says routine day-to-day interactions will be purged rather quickly, but video that captures incidents that lead to a physical arrest will be stored for up to two or three years.
Deputies already have cams
Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert A. Garcia implemented a lapel camera policy for all his deputies when he first took office in 2011.
“It’s something he’s been ahead of the curve on before it became an issue,” sheriff’s office spokesman Juan Rios said. “In terms of lapel cameras, the sheriff believes they’re appropriate and needed. It’s technology that affords protection for officers and the public.”
Chad Pierce, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Police, says his department is evaluating the use of on-body cameras. “The NMSP is now testing whether properly used body cameras enhance the ability of the NMSP to capture aspects of officer and public interaction that is qualitatively better than the recordings made by in-car cameras and belt recorders,” Pierce wrote in a statement. “The NMSP will evaluate the results of its testing, as well as the collective experiences of other law enforcement departments that have deployed body cameras, in determining whether and how to proceed with a broader deployment of body cameras.”
Although not everyone has jumped on the lapel camera train yet, police in Santa Fe say this use of technology in police work is inevitable and anyone against the idea needs to steer clear of a career in law enforcement.
“Anybody who’s concerned about a video policy should replace their job,” Matt Martinez said. “We have to follow suit.”
Chief Garcia said some veteran chiefs from around the state are opposed to the idea, but he believes body cameras are tools that serve both police and the public. “This line of work is technology-based now,” he said. “It’s not where it used to be the old-fashioned pencil and paper. You’re seeing a lot of advanced technology out there.”
Garcia says to look for his officers to be wearing lapel cameras later this summer.
“Hopefully, we should have all the cameras delivered the first or second week of August,” Garcia said. “Then, it’s on.”