Cops see citizen privacy issue in body cameras
Farmington police chief calls for legislative solution
FARMINGTON – Officials from two local law enforcement agencies say they are wary about issuing officers body cameras until the courts address citizen privacy concerns.
Aztec police Chief Mike Heal said at an Aztec City Commission work session on Tuesday he is concerned about officers equipped with body cameras recording video while in private residences.
He said that concern was one reason why his department has not yet purchased body cameras for its 14 officers.
"I am not sure which way the courts are going to go on the privacy issues and what the courts do after that," Heal said in an interview.
Heal said the cost of digitally archiving footage is another issue for his department.
Capt. Cory Tanner of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office said deputies are not currently equipped with body cameras, but officials have researched the issue, and he supports their use as tools to ensure police accountability.
However, Tanner said the sheriff’s office will wait before purchasing any units.
"We are hesitant to act until we get more guidance from the courts on releasing videos," Tanner said, adding later. "While we work for the government, we are citizens just like the people we serve. We don't want the government overreaching more than anyone else does."
Tanner pointed out that law enforcement officers often respond to calls and investigate incidents in which citizens are placed in embarrassing, lurid and/or tragic situations.
And the recordings of those incidents, like most records created by a public entity, must be made available for inspection and reproduction under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.
“Those intimate moments in people’s lives — a woman reporting a sexual assault, and she is crying — should not be made public,” Tanner said.
The Farmington Police Department has issued its patrol officers and detectives body cameras since the fall of 2013.
Officers are required to record their interactions with the public either on their body camera or on their squad car’s dashboard camera.
Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe said he believes body cameras are an effective tool for ensuring police accountability, but he said the state’s public records law needs to be changed to address privacy concerns.
"What if we found somebody that was disoriented, suffering from dementia or hypothermic, and they were taking their clothing off?" Hebbe said. "We are going to have that body camera, but how much do we want to strip somebody of their self-respect and decency?"
It's not just local officials weighing the benefits and risks of body cameras. The national office of the American Civil Liberties Union has updated its policy on body cameras, first published in October 2013, to reflect those same privacy concerns.
The ACLU states in its position that while the organization generally supports cameras that primary allow public monitoring of the government, body cameras have the potential to invade privacy, particularly cameras that provide continuous recording.
"Police officers enter people's homes and encounter bystanders, suspects and victims in a wide variety of sometimes stressful and extreme situations," the policy states.
The ACLU states that departments need to establish strong policies to both protect privacy and promote police accountability. The ACLU suggests departments should strictly enforce policies that require officers to monitor their interaction with the public and punish officers who fail to do so.
The ACLU also states that citizens should be notified that they are being recorded, recording in private residences should be limited and records should be retained for no longer than they are needed.
The ACLU states that departments should also consider redacting videos, such as by blurring faces and distorting audio, to protect an individual's identity.
Hebbe said that he believes changes need to be made to the state's public records law to address the issue. He said the issue was brought to the attention of New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas at a New Mexico Police Chiefs Association meeting during the summer.
Balderas' spokesman, James Hallinan, confirmed Friday that the attorney general is aware of the police chiefs' concerns.
"The Attorney General believes lawmakers should look at making sure we have the very best transparency laws, but also take into account the need for victim safety," Hallinan said in a statement.
In April, lawmakers in Michigan introduced legislation that would exempt the release of body camera footage recorded in a private place unless it was requested by the parties who were recorded.
The bill was introduced after 20 Detroit police officers began to wear body cameras as part of a 90-day pilot program designed to promote transparency, according to the Detroit Metro Times.
Hebbe suggested a disinterested third party could review public records requests to police departments and decide whether the records should be released by weighing the public’s interest against personal privacy.
“Right now, IPRA says almost everything, except under specific circumstances, can be released,” Hebbe said. “As a society, this was not our goal. Our goal was to make police more transparent. It was not to embarrass private citizens.”
Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.