Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation Wednesday that requires all law enforcement officers in New Mexico to wear body cameras.
The new law comes after a shock wave of social unrest and demonstrations in protest of police brutality.
It applies to city police, New Mexico State Police and county sheriff’s offices. Law enforcement agencies will be required to keep the camera rolling during all officer interactions and store video from officers’ cameras for at least 120 days.
Officers who turn off their devices could face penalties for withholding evidence, according to the Governor’s Office.
The measure, Senate Bill 8, also requires the Law Enforcement Academy Board to permanently revoke the certification of an officer who is found guilty of or pleads no contest to a crime involving unlawful use of force or threatening unlawful use of force, or who fails to intervene in police action involving unlawful use of force.
The bill, which takes effect Sept. 20, cleared the Legislature during the recent special session following discussions among lawmakers about systemic racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
New Mexico has had the highest per capita rate of people killed by police in the country over the past five years, according to a nonpartisan fiscal analysis of the legislation. From 2015-19, more than 100 people were killed by police — at least triple the national rate of police killings by population.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico did not respond to an email Wednesday seeking the group’s stance on the new law. The ACLU in the past has suggested body cameras “have the potential to serve as a much-needed police oversight tool at a time of a growing recognition that the United States has a real problem with police violence.”
But the group also has argued the policies that shape how cameras are deployed matter just as much as the cameras themselves.
Jennifer Burrill, vice president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the legislation “is a good step towards transparency” that will help victims, police and attorneys see for themselves whether testimony matches reality.
“I think we’re gonna catch and be able to observe a lot of behaviors that I think people don’t normally associate with law enforcement,” Burrill said, adding it also offers attorneys the chance to see what amounts to a first statement “before anybody sits them down [and] coaches them.”
Not everyone in law enforcement is happy with the legislation.
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office was a vocal opponent of requiring police to record their interactions with the public on video.
Steve Hebbe, who leads the New Mexico Association of Chiefs of Police, said he opposed the legislation because of the quick rollout, the cost to agencies and concern over body camera footage being made accessible through public records requests.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said he has serious concerns with the timeline of the law, the cost of obtaining cameras for agencies that don’t have them and the cost of storing video for at least 120 days.
Mendoza said all officers in his office have used body cameras in the line of duty for at least five years, but his office is still combing through the legislation to determine how to comply with all of its requirements by September.
“For them to put such a short timeline … it just makes no sense whatsoever based on procurement rules in general,” Mendoza said. “I think some of the mandates in reference to what should be recorded and for how long is very complicated and unrealistic.”
According to a fiscal analysis of the report, it will cost about $795 per camera for officers who do not have one. For 25 state police officers who do not currently have body cameras, the total cost to the state for obtaining them will be about $19,900.
The 96 local police departments and 33 county sheriff’s offices that employ 3,811 deputies statewide could “face significant costs under provisions of this bill,” the analysis said.
The analysis also cited academic studies, including a 2019 March review of research by George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. The center found body cameras “have had no statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police.”
George Mason’s researchers reviewed 70 empirical studies of police body cameras to reach that conclusion.
Five other studies found police actually use force less when not wearing cameras, and another eight academic studies found little difference in how often officers with cameras use force compared to those who do not wear cameras, the fiscal analysis said.
Burrill nonetheless argued the law will “allow officers who engage in misconduct to be held accountable.”
Lawmakers who supported the legislation when it was up for debate on the House and Senate floors similarly argued it will help hold police accountable at a time when police shootings have sparked nationwide protests and public outcry.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, passed the House 44-26 and the Senate 31-11.
The Governor’s Office said in a news release it will serve “as a deterrent against unlawful use of force” and bolsters “accountability measures in instances of inappropriate and excessive force.”