ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Police body cameras can bolster transparency. However, the cameras the Albuquerque Police Department uses now came with a feature that has caused concern: a mute button.
A trend of officers muting audio on their cameras when they shouldn’t have has sparked APD to make some changes.
“It’s such a critical tool for accountability,” said Peter Simonson, Executive Director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico.
APD Commander Cecily Barker agreed, “We recognize the importance of that.”
Yet, a troubling trend has come to light. The last two Independent Monitor’s Reports on APD’s reform efforts reveal a pattern of officers muting the audio on their cameras when they shouldn’t be.
“No, it’s not acceptable,” Barker told KRQE News 13. “Officers are allowed to mute their cameras when it involves case strategy or tactics.”
The reports describe audio going silent at scenes where officers used force on a suspect and then started to discuss it, or when officers were interacting with members of the public.
“We see this as a significant issue,” the report from May stated. “Since we have reported extensively over the past few years on the lack of compliance with OBRD (on-body recording device) use in the field.”
The ACLU shares those concerns.
“This community deserves a perfectly professional, community-friendly, constitutional police department,” Simonson said. “Holding officers accountable for policy violations like this are critical to achieving that end.”
A November report noted the most common body camera policy violations included failure to record, muting, failure to upload recordings and supervisors failing to identify violations and take corrective action.
“I am the project lead for the on-body recording device policy,” Barker said.
She is also APD’s northwest area commander. KRQE News 13 asked her to show us the body camera APD uses.
“Yeah, absolutely,” she responded. “So, this is the Axon 2 camera that we use.”
She said this model was issued in 2017, the first APD cameras that allowed officers to mute their audio. “So, officers would hit this button if they were gonna use mute,” she demonstrated.
However, APD’s body camera policy does not mention muting. After getting called out for misusing the mute function, the department sent out a Special Order to clarify that mute is only to be used when discussing “case strategy or tactics.” Before muting, the Special Order noted, officers should state their reason on camera.
That didn’t work either though. Just before the new year, APD decided to disable the mute buttons altogether. Now, the department said it is also waiting on approval for an updated body camera policy that will include sanctions for supervisors.
“Supervisors are gonna be held accountable,” Cmdr. Barker said. “They are gonna be held accountable to recognize the OBRD violations and, if they’re not recognizing them, then an internal affairs request will go for the supervisors as well.”
“It is not about making officers feel bad or look bad,” explained Simonson with the ACLU. “It’s about ensuring that we have a police department that is professional, that is policing according to constitutional standards and that the community can trust is going to carry out their job the way they should.”