Lawmakers propose limits on police videos to protect mentally ill

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said Thursday that she and a coalition of law enforcement and mental health advocates support changing New Mexico’s open-records law to prevent the release of recordings of people with mental illness without consent. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

New Mexico legislators are proposing to limit the public’s right to see videos recorded by police in incidents involving the mentally ill.

The proposal comes as a growing number of police departments issue body-worn cameras to officers, who oftentimes end up among the first responders in mental health crises. Patient advocates and some in law enforcement argue that videos police record of people who are mentally ill should be treated like protected patient information. But the mentally ill also have ended up dead in exactly the sort of shootings that led to the rise in the use of the cameras.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, told a legislative committee Thursday that the public availability of video recordings taken by police can discourage people from calling emergency services or interfere with the work of mental health crisis teams that work with police as frightened patients hold back information.

Advocates say a growing number of police departments are deploying mental health professionals to such crises.

Chasey told the committee that she and a coalition of law enforcement and mental health advocates support changing New Mexico’s open-records law to prevent the release of recordings of people with mental illness without consent.

While medical professionals must keep patient information confidential under federal law, Chasey said, the law doesn’t apply to police agencies. New Mexico needs to clarify how patient information is protected when law enforcement is involved, she said.

Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, pointed to the shooting death of James Boyd, a homeless man killed by officers in New Mexico’s biggest city in 2014. The body camera video of the shooting ignited outrage and intensified calls for reforming the Albuquerque Police Department.

And earlier this year, police in Santa Fe shot and killed a man with schizophrenia after a standoff a standoff at an apartment complex.

Advocates for transparency say concerns about privacy can be addressed, but they caution against creating an exemption to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

“We’re welcoming the opportunity to sit down and have a dialogue, but we can’t sacrifice New Mexicans’ right to know,” said Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “In a way, the videos also protect patients.”

Some states have created laws to either limit recordings by police or limit what videos are accessible to the public under open-records statutes.

Connecticut, for example, prohibits body camera recording when a person is undergoing a medical evaluation or treatment. Florida limits release of lapel camera videos recorded in “a place that a reasonable person would expect to be private,” including homes and mental health care facilities.

Some agencies have altered their own policies rather than seeking to change state law. The San Diego Police Department’s policy says officers are not to record patients during medical or psychological evaluations.

The Albuquerque Police Department requires officers to record “each and every contact” with members of the public during their shift — whether dispatched to a call, serving an arrest warrant, executing a search warrant or pulling over a vehicle.

The Santa Fe Police Department’s policy says officers are to record traffic stops, arrests, interrogations, searches and other situations. But it provides exceptions for recording in places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

And some agencies, such as the New Mexico State Police, have yet to issue body-worn cameras for officers.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.