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Debate Over New Mexico Body Camera Law Far from Settled

A new law requiring all police officers in the state to wear body cameras is set to take effect in September. Now, lawmakers are working through privacy concerns and the balance between accountability and transparency.

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(TNS) — A new law set to take effect in September requires all law enforcement officers in New Mexico to wear body cameras and keep them rolling during interactions with the public.

A number of agencies in the state have used the devices for years. For others, however, the practice is new, and issues surrounding it are far from settled.

Law enforcement officials, attorneys and lawmakers on the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee debated Tuesday how to balance accountability and transparency when it comes to an officer’s use of force with privacy concerns that could emerge for members of the public caught on camera.

Some officials also raised concerns about the costs associated with the devices. According to a legislative report, it will cost about $6.3 million statewide to purchase new equipment, store data and hire staff to handle an expected increase in public records requests.

The measure, backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, passed the Legislature during a special session in June that came amid a nationwide wave of demonstrations against police brutality and racism that erupted after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.

Some stakeholders raised questions Tuesday about whether cameras should be turned off to protect the privacy rights of some crime victims or during medical procedures. They also asked whether the use of the cameras might deter certain groups, such as undocumented immigrants, from seeking police assistance.

Legislative memorials in 2018 called for a study on police body cameras that included input from civil rights groups, mental and physical health care workers, transparency specialists, and victims rights advocates. Chief Deputy Attorney General Tania Maestas summarized the results of that work for lawmakers Tuesday.

The concerns raised by the group, Maestas said, centered on video captured inside private homes, the possible effects on crime victims and how to navigate public records laws. The study group hoped to prevent the misuse or commercialization of video showing officers interacting with the public, she added.

Some who weighed in during the hearing wondered whether policies should be created to allow officers to switch off their cameras under certain circumstances.

But state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said that would defeat the purpose of the new law. It would be better, she said, to keep the cameras rolling at all times — as required by the law — and create polices to address how the video is disseminated.

The scenarios identified as most sensitive — mental health crises and calls involving immigrants, for instance — are often the kinds of situations in which a recording could help ensure a more just outcome, she argued.

“Make rules that prohibit the release [of the video], not the recording,” Sedillo Lopez said, “because that’s what it’s all about.”

©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.