This year, turn on local Albuquerque news and it’s full of juicy police video. The local TV news industry is an ideal outlet for police-approved crime scene video. As newsroom staff continues to shrink, its far easier for a local station of cover a story if they get timely, free video footage along with all the background details from law enforcement. It lets the public decide instantly if the video subject is guilty or innocent!
I’m not sure what is more troubling, the continued proactive release of bodycam video by the Albuquerque Police, or local news stations gobbling up the free copy. TV is different from print in this case; a print story will only list charges, names, locations, and has little use for video except to document the above. Why is TV allowed to air arrest video—people at their worst—before any real prosecution takes place?
Body cameras are common police tools in 2019. At the height of the police shooting crisis in 2014-2015, bodycams became the topic of intense public scrutiny with a goal of documenting officer-involved shootings. Here’s one problem with that. Officers have turned them off.
Case in point: Mary Hawke, a 19-year-old woman, was shot three times during a foot chase. The officer’s camera was turned off. In 2018, the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Hawke’s family for $5 million.
Since then, APD sure learned its lesson. Not only are cameras on, arrest footage is released to the press as soon as possible. Sometimes even before charges are filed. Why don’t our TV news stations consider their influence on the judicial process before they air this footage? If it’s acceptable for officers to determine when their cameras should be switched on, and also to release really juicy footage to the media, what purpose do bodycams even serve? It seems like we are simply offering a way to avoid accountability and also hugely influence prosecution at the time of an event, neither of which will help actually reduce crime but might really boost Nielsen ratings.
Of course, in the East Mountains, we have five different local law enforcement agencies, all of whom undoubtedly have differing policies. We’re fortunate here to benefit from true community policing and I believe we know our law enforcement officers and they know us, as is typical in rural areas. The town of Edgewood issued bodycams to its police this spring, and EPD doesn’t seem to be releasing video on a daily basis to the press.
Notably, the Bernalillo County Sheriff continues to refuse to issue bodycams, despite increasing County Commission pressure. I’m starting to wonder if he isn’t onto something. BCSO news coverage is far less dramatic, statements from the sheriff are less defensive, and the department seems to get things done.
In my previous column about poor policing and prosecution, I suggested we should be glad our judges use their discretion to uphold our constitutional right to a fair trial. I think we should at the same time question why police and prosecutors want to release crime video before charges are even filed and challenge our news organizations to consider the ethical ramifications of airing real-time crime footage.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives north of I-40 where she and her family run two head of dog, and one of cat.