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New Mexico seeks limits on release of police body-cam video

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's House of Representatives has endorsed new limitations on public access to police body-camera video when it captures images of nudity, violence, injury or death.

The 46-19 vote Thursday sent the bill to the Senate for consideration. Proponents of the initiative include the New Mexico State Police and associations representing county and municipal governments, including sheriffs' departments.

New restrictions would be placed on access to police lapel-camera video that shows acts of extreme violence, injury or death unless an on-duty officer “is reasonably alleged or suspected to have caused the great bodily harm."

The proliferation of body-worn cameras by law enforcement personnel across the country has put the use of force by police on public display with profound consequences, such as responses to images of the fatal arrest of Tyre Nichols in Memphis on Jan. 7.

New Mexico lawmakers in 2020 enacted legislation requiring that all state and local police officers wear body cameras in response to concern about excessive use of force by law enforcement, with the exception of tribal governments.

Mary Fan, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and expert on police body-camera policies, said the proposed exemptions in New Mexico are moderate in comparison with many state and local jurisdictions, including some that require court approval for access to video recorded by police.

“A concern in various jurisdictions that do make camera footage a public record is the risk that (someone) may post a person's worst moments on YouTube," said Fan, noting that video of police responses to domestic violence incidents are of particular concern. “There needs to be a balance to protect against, essentially, voyeurism.”

The New Mexico initiative sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Debra Sariñana and Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, both of Albuquerque, adds several exceptions on access to law enforcement documents and recording that are otherwise open to public inspection.

Exemptions for police body-camera video includes recordings that reveal intimate body areas, confidential police sources and tactics, or scenes in which people are notified of the death of a family member.

Some videos with sensitive content would still be made available where problematic images can be obscured with editing tools. And video still would be available for on-site viewing at government offices with a prohibition or copying or recording video files.

The bill contains a long list of other exemptions to open-records law, including information about government computer and information technology systems, as well as private business information related to marketing and advertising campaigns for the state.

A legislative panel held a hearing Monday with the opportunity for comment on a rewritten bill that was not made public until later. No objections were raised by an open-records watchdog group.

Under a separate bill, state law would no longer automatically presume that police acted in bad faith by failing to comply with policies for body-worn cameras, such as when to turn them on and prematurely erasing video, and liability provisions would be eased but not eliminated for negligently ruining or destroying video evidence. That bill won Senate approval Wednesday on a 41-0 vote.

During the House floor debate Thursday, Republican state Rep. Cathrynn Brown of Carlsbad expressed unease with proposed limits on public access to information about government computer and technology systems, including election systems.

“Of course we don’t want people hacking into the computer systems. But there are times where there are question marks about how things are actually done, and I think citizens should have the right to look into that and not be precluded,” she said.

Bill sponsor Sariñana said the intention is to protect information technology systems.