SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico lawmakers may set up a community task force as they consider restricting public access to body camera recordings of police interactions with people with mental illnesses.
A Republican Senator and House Democrat proposed that the state attorney general convene a group to recommend legislation that would “protect the mental and physical health information of individuals” from disclosure in police recordings. An initial committee hearing had not yet been scheduled as of Thursday.
Advocates for the mentally ill have voiced concern that the proliferation of video recordings taken by police can discourage people from calling emergency services or interfere with the work of mental health crisis teams as frightened patients hold back information.
At the same time, video and audio from devices worn by officers have played a pivotal role in investigations of the use of force in the Albuquerque Police Department’s interactions with the mentally ill, including the fatal 2014 shooting by Albuquerque police of a mentally-ill homeless man, James Boyd, that triggered public protests.
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Two officers involved in the Boyd shooting were cleared of second-degree murder charges by prosecutors after a mistrial.
Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey, a sponsor of the task-force proposal, said Thursday that the intent is to explore whether personal health information is adequately protected by current law and to ensure police are not placed in danger because people fear police cameras.
Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque said the task-force initiative seeks a balanced approach by inviting a broad range of interest groups, from state health agencies to advocacy groups on civil liberties, the mentally ill and law enforcement officers. He acknowledged that body-worn cameras are an important tool for monitoring police conduct.
The task force proposal notes that the use of body-worn cameras is required of Albuquerque police in many instances under a court-approved agreement with the Department of Justice, in an effort to address a documented pattern of excessive force by police.
Steven Robert Allen, director of public policy of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the study of mental health privacy issues is welcome — but that body-worn cameras have been shown to have a civilizing effect on behavior by both police and members of the public.
“Body cameras also protect officers from having frivolous charges filed against them,” he said.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has cast doubt on the use of police body cameras, saying no one has provided him with data showing the cameras make the community safer.
Peter St. Cyr, director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said current state law provides confidentiality for records of a patients’ interactions with paramedics.
The state Attorney General’s Office is the lead enforcement agency for the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act and voiced support Thursday for forming the task force.