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NM Dems backtrack on police body cam enforcement

North Charleston
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A 2020 law required state, county and city law enforcement in New Mexico to always use body cameras and retain the footage. A bill approved unanimously by the Senate Wednesday would create more leniency around the rule, along with all out exceptions to it.

In the summer of 2020, against a backdrop of outrage over racist police violence and massive demonstrations following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico passed a law requiring law enforcement to use body-worn cameras and save the footage. Now, Senate Democrats are rolling the law back, creating more leniency and exemptions.

Existing law, sponsored in 2020 by Sen. Joe Cervantes (D-Doña Ana), applies to state, county and city law enforcement. It assumes officers who don’t use their body cams, or who erase them, are being intentionally dishonest and spoiling evidence. A bill moving through the Legislature would allow a judge to make that call on a case-by-case basis.

“And that’s the way it should have been when I passed this bill originally,” Cervantes said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “I put such a harsh result in the original legislation, and that’s because we had a very small handful of law enforcement who said they would not honor the wishes of this legislature.”

Cervantes said Manny Gonzales, then-sheriff of the state’s largest county, was “openly hostile” to the requirement, but that things look different in 2023.

“I believe the resistance has now evaporated entirely,” he told his colleagues.

In addition to more wiggle room on whether to use the lapel cameras, officers working undercover or dealing with an explosive device would be exempt entirely under a committee substitute for Senate Bill 368.

The proposal’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Harold Pope, says a third exemption for officers notifying a member of the public of a death was removed from the original bill after state and Albuquerque police said those types of interactions can create situations that are helpful to capture.

Republican Sen. Craig Brandt told Pope during debate on the Senate floor that he was grateful Democrats were pulling back on the body cam requirement but said many GOP lawmakers saw issues with it from the jump.

“These things could have been fixed in 2020,” he said. “But we were ignored.”

While research on the tech’s effectiveness has been mixed, a 2021 report that updates earlier studies showed police use of force dropped by 10% when their cameras were on.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously. It’ll now get vetted in the House.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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