As police agencies add body cameras, arrests have to count
Granted, it’s past time police officers and sheriff’s deputies are equipped with on-body cameras. The technology has been around for years, and the main reasons it hasn’t been implemented across the board are cost and intransigence by a handful of law enforcement leaders.
Historically, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has been at the forefront of holdouts, arguing there was no proof cameras made for better law enforcement — even in the face of controversial shootings and multimillion-dollar payouts — and ignoring hundreds of thousands of dollars allocated for the technology.
That said, a new state law requires the cameras. And it’s worth noting that Gonzales appears to be on board and working to make that happen, hopefully by the end of the year. But for some, that’s not soon enough.
It’s also worth calling out as irresponsible and dangerous the argument that cases brought by officers who don’t have cameras yet will not be admissible in court.
That’s what Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he expected to happen once the law took effect — which was Sunday.
So a case filed by a camera-less deputy who makes an arrest after being called out to a violent crime would automatically be tossed? That’s what would happen if you follow the argument put forth by Cervantes. “If officers intend to enforce the law, then to do so they will have to have body cameras,” he said.
Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez points out, correctly, that legislators can’t dictate what cases get tossed. That’s up to the courts, and defense lawyers no doubt will argue about the absence of footage. But the DA’s spokeswoman says the office would immediately notify the attorney general and Law Enforcement Academy “if we discover that any law enforcement officers are out of compliance with the statute.”
To what end? We know BCSO doesn’t have on-body cameras for its 319 sworn personnel. Are deputies supposed to face discipline for doing their jobs with the equipment they do have? Do Cervantes and the DA think law enforcement officers should just stay home until they get their body cams? Is the BCSO supposed to say, “Sorry, we aren’t taking 911 calls until we get our cameras?”
Never mind that BCSO is finally working to acquire cameras for one of the state’s biggest departments, using cellphone camera technology the sheriff says would be a significant upgrade to units being used by most police agencies. And never mind that state lawmakers gave police and sheriff’s departments around the state just 90 days to get systems in place. And never mind that they didn’t appropriate any money to cover millions of dollars in expenses.
When it comes to sheriff’s offices, Bernalillo, McKinley and San Juan are not yet in compliance. That number is harder to pinpoint with the state’s 72 police departments, but A.J. Forte, executive director of the N.M. Municipal League, says all are “working toward being compliant.”
The law also requires that camera footage be stored 120 days, and that all officers record when responding to calls or engaging with a member of the public for a law enforcement or investigative purpose.
As for BCSO, County Manager Julie Morgas Baca says the sheriff’s department is working with county administrative staff and she is optimistic deputies can be equipped with cameras in the next few months. She says IT staff will work with the sheriff’s office, $1 million has been set aside for equipment and another $500,000 for recurring expenses.
On-body cameras are an important tool for constitutional policing. Lawmakers were right to require them, and agencies that don’t have them yet need to move as expeditiously as possible to get them in the field.
But giving agencies just 90 days and no money was unreasonable. And saying any case brought by a deputy or police officer who doesn’t have a camera will be tossed out of court is worse than unreasonable. It presents a public safety hazard in its own right.