As po­lice agen­cies add body cam­eras, ar­rests have to count

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION -

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.

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