Last fall a law went into effect in New Mexico requiring law enforcement officers to wear and activate body cameras during all encounters with the public and to safeguard the resulting footage should it be needed as evidence. Last week the Sierra County Sheriff’s department asked the county commission for a 2021-2022 budget allocation to upgrade its existing body-camera equipment and hire a clerk to process the digital data.
Senate Bill 8, titled “Law Enforcement Body Cameras,” was passed during the New Mexico Legislature’s 2020 special session and signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in response to the growing number of documented cases of law enforcement civil rights violations in the United States. The bill requires the activation of body-worn cameras when officers respond to calls and prohibits deactivation until the conclusion of an encounter. Footage of all encounters must also be maintained for a minimum of 120 days. The law went into effect in September 2020.
Officers who fail to wear a camera or manipulate or erase the audiovisual data are to be disciplined. Officers who fail to comply are “presumed to have acted in bad faith and shall be deemed liable for the independent tort of negligent spoliation of evidence or the independent tort of intentional spoliation of evidence.”
Interviewed by the Sun, Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton raised several concerns about the new requirements. There is no provision for equipment failure; the law presumes that the officer is to blame if there is missing footage. Another problem is that the law provides no funding to help departments pay for the needed equipment, supplies and data management.
Hamilton had implemented body-camera requirements after taking office in 2015. According to Hamilton, those cameras have proved problematic, occasionally failing to record, posting incorrect time stamps and losing battery power during patrols. In light of the new law’s stringent requirements, the sheriff’s department had requested budgetary approval to purchase a newer system of smartphone cameras called FirstNet, built and operated by AT&T.
FirstNet is now being utilized by Bernallilo and Valencia counties, among other New Mexico jurisdictions, Hamilton explained. He spoke with his Valencia County counterpart about the system and was told they had experienced no problems with it during the seven or eight months it had been in use.
FirstNet supplies the smartphones for $1 each and charges $54 per month per phone. The Sierra County Sheriff employs 11 patrol officers, bringing total monthly fees to about $600. There is also a recurring annual fee of $13,600 to use the system, which will be covered by monies from the state Law Enforcement Fund, according to Hamilton.
FirstNet cameras come with software that automatically uploads footage to cloud storage. But the sheriff’s department must manually review the audiovisual data and identify footage from encounters that may be needed as evidence of crimes or officer misconduct. The 120-day minimum storage requirement is the time limitation for a citizen to file a complaint against an officer, according to Hamilton. Footage that does not contain criminal evidence or has not been requested by a complainant can be erased after 120 days.
The FirstNet system, unlike the old system, allows for footage to be redacted to protect innocent bystanders and victims before it is turned over in fulfillment of Inspection of Public Records requests. Hamilton said that the increase in IPRAs he had expected would accompany the enactment of the new body camera requirements has not materialized.
In addition to incurring new equipment and software costs, Hamilton proposed in his budget presentation to the commissions that the department hire a full-time clerk to oversee the footage for which it is now legally accountable. The department has accumulated nine months of visual evidence since the body-camera law was enacted that must be processed. At the rate that new footage is being produced, Hamilton said the department would soon have a “room full of servers” if a full-time clerk were not hired to deal with the backlog and inventory new footage on daily basis.
Once these operational imperatives have been accomplished, Hamilton envisioned that the clerk would be able to take on management of the department’s physical evidence room, which is currently overseen by a deputy sheriff in addition to his regular duties.
At their May 11 budget workshop, the Sierra County Commissioners expressed doubt that the county could afford a new clerk’s full-time salary and benefits. They preferred to keep a tight rein on 2021-2022 budget in case the county faced unforeseen expenses associated with the renovation of its new administration building. They also cited the need to await the results of a pay study that will determine the compensation rates Sierra County should pay its employees to remain competitive. The county must also provide annual raises to its minimum-wage employees due to the increases in New Mexico’s minimum wage rates that began this year and will continue through 2023.
While pointing out that the clerk would have to be paid more than the minimum wage, Hamilton agreed with the commission that the position could be part time. The alternative, he told the Sun, was to risk a “large-scale revolt” if he were to ask each of his deputies to go through the footage themselves after every patrol.
The department, he added, had nearly seen a “mass exodus” in 2020, when the deputies learned that there would be no raises that year because of the county commission’s decision to spend $1.7 million to purchase the vacant Amin’s furniture store on Date Street for its consolidated administrative headquarters.
Because the department was already experiencing a steady loss of deputies to other jobs, Hamilton told the Sun he did a pay comparison with some of the agencies that had been hiring them and determined that a pay increase was necessary to remain competitive. With no monies for raises forthcoming last year, Hamilton’s solution was to utilize funds for two unfilled positions that had been allocated in the department’s budget to increase the deputies’ pay.
Currently, a starting deputy earns $19 per hour. The county’s total expenditure per deputy is about $90,000.