The Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office recently acquired the $30,000 it needs to outfit each of its deputies with a sophisticated body camera.
That was the relatively easy part.
Now the office, like many other law enforcement agencies across the state and country, is grappling with how to write a clear and comprehensive policy for deputies on how to use the tools.
“Nowadays, it seems like the officer’s testimony isn’t enough,” said SCSO Capt. Mike Traxler. “The public needs to see what happened on video.”
The office has been using some form of body cameras for more than five years, Traxler said, though deputies were told how and when to use them only in memos or special orders. Those orders were typically brief and simply required all “person-to-person” contacts to be recorded, he said.
The office just received a little more than $16,000 apiece through a federal grant and in the final fiscal 2015-16 county budget approved by the Sandoval County Commission to buy at least 40 body cameras. It hasn’t determined yet which model will be chosen, but they are hoping to find a product with long-lasting battery life and a flexible camera head.
Traxler said the office is taking the opportunity to craft a comprehensive standard operating procedure, or SOP, that respects the privacy of those captured on camera while staying useful as a tool to keep deputies and citizens honest. Officials have to consider federal medical privacy laws, the state victim’s advocacy laws and the Inspection of Public Records Act.
The Sheriff’s Office hopes to have the cameras bought and the SOP written by November.
Officials are also worried about the manpower required to go through videos frame by frame and blur or redact sensitive or confidential information, like Social Security numbers.
He pointed to a recent case in Seattle in which a man anonymously requested an immense amount of police records, including body camera videos. The request would have drained the city financially and halted a plan to outfit officers with body cameras. In the end, the requester and the city came to a compromise, according to the Seattle Times.
“We have to look at what the impact is going to be on our workforce to fulfill these requests,” Traxler said. “… That’s an unanswered question among a lot of us in law enforcement.”
He said the topic came up in a public records forum at a recent statewide chiefs-of-police conference this spring, with leaders of departments large and small concerned about how the technology would impact their policing and their SOPs.
Traxler said SCSO is not obligated by law or statute to record citizen contacts, but it has become an expectation among the public, especially with recent headlines drawing increased scrutiny for police both nearby in Albuquerque and all over the country.
“If the law said that we had to release a video, I think there’s some agency heads – even if it were mandated by law – that would refuse if (the video) shows a crime victim,” he said, specifying that images of victims of rape, for example, should not be subject to public records requests.