June 23, 2020

Bill requiring police to wear body cams while on duty heads to governor

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Amid calls for increased scrutiny of law enforcement, the House of Representatives voted 44-26 to approve a measure that would require all New Mexico police officers to wear body cameras. 

The legislation, passed by the House two days after the state Senate concluded its business and departed a special session that focused on shoring up the state budget, now heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk.

Lujan Grisham praised the work of the Legislature during the special session, but noted it is only the start as New Mexico looks to the 60-day session in January amid a severe economic downturn brought on by falling oil prices and the COVID-19 crisis.

“Let me be clear: The work of rebuilding our state economy has only begun,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “But we will, I have no doubt, construct a more robust and inclusive economy than ever before as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic with everything we’ve got.

“And the work we’ve begun on civil rights and public safety reform and election accessibility and small business relief will remain a chief priority of my administration,” she added.

Public safety reform and help for small business were the order of business in the House Monday.

Senate Bill 8, passed by the House Tuesday, also would revoke a police officer’s certification if he or she is found guilty or pleads guilty or no contest to the unlawful use or threatened use of force in the line of duty. 

A police officer could also have his or her certification revoked if an officer fails to intervene in a police action involving the unlawful use of force.

The bill, which requires each police agency to come up with its own policies regarding these mandates, comes in the continued wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. His death has spurred a nationwide call for more scrutiny and reform programs for law enforcement agencies. 

House Democrats praised the bill as a necessary step in ensuring accountability within New Mexico’s police agencies — particularly in a state that has the highest per-capita rate of people killed by police officers over the past five years, according to two separate national reports.

Those reports said that from 2015 to 2019, between 101 and 107 New Mexicans were killed by police, a rate of 9.7 to 10.2 per million residents, while the national rate of individuals killed by police ranged from 3 to 3.4 per million residents, according to the Legislative Finance Committee’s analysis of the bill. 

“Our communities have a right to remain safe … should they have to interact with a law enforcement officer,” said Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, cq D-Mesilla, who presented the bill on the House floor Tuesday.

She said body cameras will help ensure those citizens “walk away from that engagement alive… we have our own stories about encounters that go wrong and have ended with death.”

Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill did not argue that point. Rather, they focused their criticism on the speed with which Democrat legislators pushed the bill through in a four-day special session and the fact the bill has no financial appropriation tied to it.

As such, they said the counties, cities and municipalities that do not currently use body cameras will have to find money to fund the new law within 90 days, as per the bill.

The Legislative Finance Committee analysis of the bill says each body camera would cost about $795 and the legislation, if signed, could lead to “significant additional costs” for law enforcement departments. 

Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said the legislation is “just too heavy a lift in a special session. This bill is being perceived by the public as being rushed through, last minute.”

He said the cost for many police departments will be deemed as “an unfunded mandate.” 

Cadena said it’s possible the state can ask for federal funds to help pay for the cameras, but Republicans expressed doubt such requests would be fulfilled by the time the bill becomes law.

Other Republicans worried the camera footage, which would become a public record, could potentially work against those caught on camera who may not be charged with a crime or who may be witnesses to a crime and whose testimony would thus be revealed.  

Some Republicans blasted members of the Senate for finishing their share of the business on Saturday, leaving the House behind. That’s when the Senate body voted 30-12 to use a mix of spending cuts, federal funding and reserves to deal with that budget hole. 

The Senate on Saturday also passed House Bill 5, which would set up a commission to look into the issue of “qualified immunity” — a judicial precedent that makes it harder to prosecute police or other public officials in potential misconduct cases.

“The state Senate has gone home and left us here to work,” said Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell. “They painted us in a corner and said `here’s 90 days, you go tell local governments they have to pay for it [the cameras].’

“I think that’s patently unfair.”

Even as more law enforcement agencies around the country require their officers to wear body cameras, a recent George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy report says it’s too soon to tell if they make much of a difference in how officers act. 

Those analysts reviewed 70 studies of body-worn cameras used through June 2018 and found “cameras reduced the number of overall complaints against officers, but their impacts on other police behaviors are less conclusive.”

Senate Bill 8 was one of just two pieces of legislation that the House members debated Monday.

The other, Senate Bill 3, would invest up to $400 million in Severance Tax Permanent Fund money into a new fund that business owners could draw on for a three-year loan to help them weather financial storms brought on by the COVID-19 threat.

The House voted 59-5 to approve that bill before the body adjourned, putting an end to the session around 7 p.m.