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Farmington police chief weighs in on body camera law during legislative committee meeting

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe talks during in an interview, Wednesday, July 11, 2018 at the Farmington Police Department.

AZTEC — Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe initially was reluctant to mandate body cameras. He said he was a skeptic when he moved to Farmington, where a body camera program had begun shortly before he took the job as police chief.

But after having seen the benefits of the cameras, Hebbe told lawmakers that he is a firm believer in the technology.

Hebbe was one of several people who participated in the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee meeting on Aug. 18 as the lawmakers discussed a new law mandating body cameras for law enforcement officers.

A recording of the meeting can be viewed at nmlegis.gov.

Senate Bill 8 means police departments must have body cameras for every officer, and the footage captured must be stored for 120 days.

“That’s a substantial storage obligation,” said Grace Philips, general counsel for New Mexico Counties.

This law was passed during the special legislative session in the wake of nationwide protests demanding increased police accountability.

“I have no problem with the overall arc of SB8, which is to get body cameras on police officers,” Hebbe said.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe, center, walks with the community and department members along South Oliver Drive in Aztec as members of the state public defender's office in Aztec and the community marched on June 8 as part of a protest organized by Public Defenders for Racial Justice

However, he said there are some problems in the new law, including the short time frame for implementation.

The Farmington Police Department started its body camera program in 2013 and purchased an entirely new system last year. He said the new system has had mechanical problems that needed to be fixed and, at times, led to lost footage. Even a year after purchasing the new system, FPD is having to work through some of those technical problems.

“There will be technological problems,” he said. “There’s just no way around it.”

Some police departments like Farmington have an advantage of having a body camera program in place. Meanwhile others will have to start from scratch.

Dona Ana, Bernalillo, McKinley, San Juan and Valencia counties do not currently have body camera programs. Those counties will have larger costs to implement a program and comply the new law, however virtually every county is anticipating some cost.

Funding will be a challenge as many of the grant applications or other funding deadlines have already passed.

Some of these costs for San Juan County will be recurring as the county must hire a records custodian to respond to Inspection of Public Records Act requests. According to information Philips presented, San Juan County must spend more than $300,000 on body cameras and storage equipment as well as about $47,000 for the records custodian position.

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Questions remain about how the records requests will be handled, especially in terms of privacy.

“I think our officers do see the value in lapel footage and body worn cameras, but I think the concern really is the financial aspect of it,” said New Mexico Municipal League Risk Services Director Glenda Sanchez.

Sanchez said lapel footage helps assess claims.

“We’ve got to recognize that there’s this level of distrust and we’ve got to repair,” said Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who sponsored the bill.

Cervantes said body cameras may help repair the distrust that the public has of law enforcement.

While Hebbe said he supports body cameras, he said there are privacy concerns. Law enforcement officers often capture video on their lapel cameras of individual in their most vulnerable moments. Hebbe said that the Inspection of Public Records Act public records request laws should be modified to be more compatible with the body cameras. For example, video of officers interacting with a suicidal person should be exempt from the Inspection of Public Records Act, Hebbe said.

He wasn't the only one who expressed concerns about privacy.

"When we talk about IPRA and body cameras, it really gets into the substance of the footage," said Tania Maestas, chief deputy attorney general of civil affairs for the Office of the Attorney General.

She said hospitals are concerned that recordings could violate healthcare privacy laws and there are also concerns about filming people in a mental or behavioral health crisis. 

Philips expressed concern that people may become reluctant to call law enforcement officers if they know they are being recorded and that video could be released to someone under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

Toward the end of the meeting, Hebbe offered a suggestion for protecting privacy while complying with public records requests. He suggested a board that could include members of the media to review such cases.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.