Since taking office on January 1, 2015 for his first term, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales has consistently opposed the use of lapel cameras by his agency even while lapel camera usage has been required of APD officers for some time. Many Democrats and Republicans strongly disagree with Sheriff Gonzales’ resistance to the use of lapel cameras.
On June 18, 2020, a special legislative session was convened to deal with the state’s deficit and to adjust the state budget amid historical deficits the result of the COVID-19. Added to the special session agenda was legislation requiring all law enforcement in the state to wear body cameras, banning chokehold restraints, and making police disciplinary history a matter of public record. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill enacted mandating the use of body cameras. Under the enacted legislation, all law enforcement agencies were to be fully equipped with lapel cameras by September, 2020.
On July 15, Sheriff Gonzales, essentially ignoring the lapel camera mandate by the legislature, announced he was looking to partner with a private company so his deputies could put “smartphones” in their vests and record video instead of using body cameras. The suggestion to use “smart phones” was met with ridicule. Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, the sponsor of the mandatory use of lapel cameras by all New Mexico law enforcement, burst out laughing when told of the sheriff’s plan to use smart phones. Senator Cervantes had this to say:
“I’m pleased to see the sheriff is finally willing to adopt one of the tools of modern law enforcement. … We passed a law that requires body-worn cameras, so if he wants to do it by duct-taping iPhones on his officers’ chests, that’s his prerogative, although I think it creates the possibility of becoming a laughingstock.”
BCSO FINALLY PURCHASES BODY CAMERAS
It was in the fall of 2019 the Bernalillo County Commission allocated $1 million in startup money, plus $500,000 in recurring annual funds for the sheriff’s office to get dashboard cameras and lapel cameras. Sheriff Gonzales refused the County Commissions request and no equipment was ever purchased. Gonzales did not touch $1 million in startup money and $500,000 in recurring annual funds.
In late November, 2020, Bernalillo County entered into a $3.8 million, 5 year contract with “The BodyWorn Camera by Utility, Inc.” The county spent upwards of $4.3 million to cover 5 years. The contract covers the BodyWorn devices, two cameras in each BCSO vehicle with one device in the front and one in the back, hotspots for Wi-Fi in the deputy’s cruisers. The contract also includes tailoring of uniforms so they can hold the devices, and a holster that will automatically activate the cameras when a firearm is drawn.
On Friday, January 22, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales held a press conference to showcase the body cameras his department purchased for all of his 310 appointed sheriff deputies. Describing the devices as “digital evidence management systems”, Sheriff Gonzales proclaimed that he picked the best cameras with the best technology. Gonzales said BCSO conducted extensive research before settling on Utility. According to Gonzales, the company had one of the fastest implementation periods once the contract was signed.
When asked about the delay since the September deadline in buying the devices Gonzales had this to say:
“The traditional camera is obsolete. … Why would I put something that I feel is not going to serve the public well or the deputies well and make them safer when we have another option? … The point is it’s the law and we’re going to follow that law and we’re going to make the most out of it. … And I think we got more bang for our buck and we’re in a better position service-wise, so everyone benefited from this.”
The devices have the appearance of a smart phone that is slipped into a hidden pocket on a deputy’s chest. The devices are cell phones, but they are programed into specific functions that prevent them from being used to make phone calls. In addition to recording video the devices can take photographs, upload content to the cloud, send an alert if a deputy is “down” and receive text messages or photos from dispatch. The county purchased SIM cards to make the devices run and bought the devices for 289 deputies who didn’t already have them.
According to BodyWorn Camera by Utility, Inc representative Jason Dombkowski, the devices can be activated when a deputy is dispatched on a call, when a siren is turned on, when a deputy starts to run or get into a physical fight and when a weapon is unholstered. The department can also activate “geofences” around an area that will automatically activate the camera when a deputy enters it. The device’s battery should last between 22 to 24 hours if the device is alternating between standby and activated mode.
Dombkowski had this to say:
“It knows if it is horizontal or vertical. … If a deputy goes down in a line of duty it automatically activates recording. It alerts everyone that’s working that we have an officer down, it gives turn by turn directions to their location and it sends a cavalry. It also activates the camera and it live streams that video to a dispatch center to see why that deputy went down.”
BCSO Undersheriff Sid Covington said the department has policies that mandate deputies to record all law enforcement encounters with the public in line with what state law requires. Covington stated:
“The law is very specific on what we must record, so … [the devices are] programmed to be in line with the law. … When we have contact with citizens they’re activated, when we do a traffic stop, when we do an investigation, we get dispatched through call for service — that’s when they’re recording because that’s what the law requires. Same with our policy, our policy requires that.”
The link to news sources and quotes are here:
A $4 MILLION DOLLAR LEASON
Sheriff Gonzales stubborn resistance to have his officers equipped with body cameras likely cost the county taxpayers in just one officer involved shooting almost as much as the county is paying for the devices. It was in July, 2019, mentally ill Elisha Lucero, 28, was shot to death in front of her RV, which was parked in front of her family’s South Valley home. Deputies had responded to the home after a relative called 911 saying Lucero had hit her uncle in the face. According to the 911 call, a relative said Lucero was mentally ill, needed help, and was a threat to herself and to everybody else. Just one month prior, Lucero had called BCSO and asked to be taken to the hospital for mental health issues.
According to the lawsuit by the Lucero family, when deputies arrived, they said Lucero initially refused to come out of the home. The 4-foot-11 Lucero, naked from the waist up, rushed out running and screaming and armed with a kitchen knife attacking the officers. The Sheriff Deputies pulled their revolvers and shot Lucero. The sheriff deputies reported that they were fearful for their lives. According to an autopsy report, Lucero was shot at least 21 times by the Sheriff Deputies. The autopsy also revealed Lucero had high levels methamphetamine in her system.
The Lucero family civil suit states:
“the deputies created a situation where they were forced to use deadly force against Ms. Lucero or have justified their unlawful use of deadly force with the falsehood that Ms. Lucero presented a deadly threat to one or all of them.”
The Lucero lawsuit filed on January 13, 2020, alleges Sheriff Gonzales has fostered a “culture of aggression” in the department and too few deputies are trained to handle people with mental health issues. The allegation of a “culture of aggression” and the use of deadly force when dealing with the mentally ill is identical to what the Department of Justice investigation found within the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) 6 years ago resulting in the DOJ federal Court Approved Settlement Agreement. Albuquerque has paid out $5 million to $6 million for it’s most high-profile officer-involved shootings, including the shooting of mentally ill homeless camper James Boyd and mentally ill Christopher Torres prior to beginning its reform effort with the Department of Justice.
On March 6, 2020, it was reported that the family of a mentally ill Elisha Lucero, 28 settled their lawsuit with the county for $4 million dollars. The two Sheriff Deputies who shot and killed Elisha Lucero were not wearing lapel cameras. As a result, there is no “real time” evidence of what happened that day that led to the tragic death of Elisha Lucero at the hands of Bernalillo County Sherriff Officers. Had there been body camera footage recording of what happened showing how aggressive Lucero may have been, it would have revealed what happened and perhaps allowed a much stronger defense. Obviously, the downside of a recording of the incident may have revealed far more egregious conduct. No one knows the truth of what happened except that which is contained in offense reports, witness and officer statements, the autopsy and the unproven allegations in the lawsuit.
$4 MILLION SETTLEMENT CITED TO SUPPORT CIVIL RIGHTS ACT
The 2021 New Mexico legislature convened on January 21 for a 60 day session. One bill in particular that is moving through the legislative committees is House Bill 4 which calls for the creation of a New Mexico Civil Rights Act which would allow legal claims to be filed in State District Court over alleged infringements of free speech, freedom of religion and other constitutional rights violated by government employees, including law enforcement. Excessive use of force and deadly force against law enforcement and police misconduct would be included in such cases.
The new state law would bar the use of qualified immunity as a defense in cases filed under the Civil Rights Act meaning government employees could be held personally liable for civil rights violations. Qualified immunity offers legal protection if officials can show their conduct didn’t violate clearly established constitutional rights about which a reasonable person would know . When it comes to law enforcement, that would mean unreasonable use of force and deadly force cases. In the state of New Mexico, the overwhelming number of officer involved shooting case result in settlements and no jury trials.
On January 25, during a House Committee meeting for HB 4 creating the civil rights act, Elaine Maestas, the older sister Elisha Lucero, testified before the committee about her sister’s at the hands of Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies in 2019 who shot her 21 times and said:
“For me, it’s unbelievable that police are entrusted to make life-and-death decisions, yet they’re held to some of the lowest standards when it comes to accountability. ”
The proposed Civil Rights Act is being opposed by police chiefs and representatives of cities, counties and schools across New Mexico. One argument made is that the proposal will raise insurance costs and do nothing to improve police training law enforcement agencies and educators across the state.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
In the event that the New Mexico Civil Rights Act is enacted, there is no doubt that the evidence gathered by digital recording devices and lapel cameras will go a long ways to assist law enforcement to defend against cases of “excessive use of force” and “deadly force”. Real time footage of an event captured on lapel cameras will no doubt be offered as proof that an officer acted reasonably and in self defense of themselves and of others.
All too often, when the use of body cameras are required of an agency, there is an emphasis that it is to hold police officers accountable for misconduct. That, in and of itself, is a false narrative. The use of the body cameras provides “real time” evidence as to what a law enforcement officer is seeing, hearing and reacting to and it’s strictly from their prospective. It is that very type of evidence that can support and prove that a law enforcement officer has in fact acted appropriately and reasonably with use of force and deadly force when dealing with the public. In other words, the lapel camera footage can justify with little dispute that it was the suspect that was at fault and who was the aggressor and a threat to an officer or others.
Since taking office 6 years ago, Sheriff Gonzales has resisted mandating the use of body cameras for his deputies. Gonzales said there is no evidence that they work making the public or officers safer and that he had other budget priorities. Simply put, it is not about making the public or officers safer and has everything to do with “evidence gathering”, which is what law enforcement officers do when they investigate a crime.
What is disappointing is that Sheriff Gonzales should have known better and apparently learned nothing from the Elisha Lucero case that cost the County $4 Million in damages for the use of deadly force. Even after the shooting of Elisha Lucero and the $4 Million settlement, Sheriff Gonzales did not change his opposition to lapel cameras. Gonzales proclaimed his deputies did not need lapel cameras because they had audio recorders on their belts.
Sheriff Gonzales dragging his feet on mandating the use of body cameras is inexcusable. The resistance was a reflection of a law enforcement official refusing to keep up with changing times and technology in law enforcement. Even now, Gonzales refuses to acknowledge the use of cameras and describes the devices as “digital evidence management systems”. Sheriff Gonzales has taken action only because the New Mexico legislature had to step in and make the use of the digital or video recording devices mandatory for all law enforcement agencies.
Congratulations to Sheriff Manny Gonzales for bringing the Bernalillo County Sherriff’s Office into the 21st Century, even if done so very reluctantly.