Wayne Johnson

The Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office is currently unable to comply with the state mandate for body cameras, said county Undersheriff Joe Gonzales at the Nov. 19 county commission meeting.

During the special legislative session in July, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill that requires sworn law enforcement officers who “interact with the public to wear a body-worn camera while on duty,” according to the bill. That includes undercover law enforcement personnel, said County Manager Wayne Johnson.

Requiring all sworn personnel at the sheriff’s office to wear body cameras more than doubled the amount of money needed to follow the mandate, Johnson said. In addition, it increased the amount of funding needed to digitally store the footage for the required 120 days, he said.

Consequences if the county does not meet guidelines in the mandate include possible civil lawsuits, he said.

“Worst case, if it would end up in some court decision or agreement, we might have to put off other priorities like roads or other issues to pay for cameras. Right now, we are trying to balance all of those issues,” Johnson said.  “For example, how do you balance the need for a fire engine or ambulances versus body cameras? Which one is more important?”

Working toward meeting requirements in the mandate, on Nov. 19 the commission unanimously approved a $100,000 grant agreement for body cameras that provides funding from the state. In September 2019, the county applied for this funding from the legislature.

“This is something we cannot wave a magic wand at and be in complete compliance with it as the law is written; now we are making good-faith efforts to get there,” Johnson said. “The legislature, in imposing and creating this law, they did not write a check with it to any of the counties.”

The county has been utilizing body cameras for several years and has seen a rise in prices for the equipment after the death of George Floyd, Gonzales said. The county is trying to acquire more funding for body cameras to meet the rising costs.

In September, Sandoval County commissioners selected five capital projects to prioritize in the county Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan for the fiscal years of 2022-26 to submit to the state. These top five projects included body cameras for law enforcement.

Legislators will decide how much funding to grant to the county in the next legislative session.

Gonzales said the model of body cameras the sheriff’s office is using breaks easily and is of lower quality; however, it is more affordable.

“At least it gets you into compliance quicker. It is not necessarily something you prefer to do because if you purchase something that is going to have a shorter life, then you have to purchase more of them over time, so from a budget standpoint, it is not the best approach,” Johnson said.

For the county to be in substantial compliance with the mandate, it would cost about $150,000, Johnson said. Slightly upgrading the quality of body cameras could cost around $520,000, he said.

“The way we should do it, it would probably cost closer to a million,” Johnson said.

SCSO Lt. John Castañeda said there is good and bad to wearing body cameras. The body cameras the sheriff’s office has begin recording when a deputy pushes a button.

A problem with these cameras is if an incident happened unexpectedly, the deputy has to remember to start recording, Castañeda said. For example, if Castañeda is picking up water for the sheriff’s office and a shooting happens at the store, his first instinct is not to hit a recording button, he said.

Castañeda is concerned that a court will not believe what he said happened before the body camera is turned on. Other models of body cameras can begin recording when they sense an officer running or when an officer draws his gun, Castañeda said.

Body cameras have helped clear law enforcement of false accusations and keep deputies accountable for their actions, he said.

“I am good with cameras. It does help,” he said. “It is a good tool, but with any tool, it does hinder as well.”

Corrections were made to this article. 

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Assistant Editor at Rio Rancho Observer