The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Public records access best protection for state's mentally ill


November 19, 2017

We have a two-word response to the dangerously misguided legislation being proposed by state Rep. Gail Chasey that would greatly restrict public access to police videos of people with mental illness.

“James Boyd.”

Despite Chasey’s well-intentioned goal of protecting the privacy of mentally ill individuals who wind up facing police during a crisis, the Albuquerque Democrat’s bill would severely undermine public oversight of police, their actions and tactics, and even departmental policies.

That public oversight was key to exposing serious issues within the Albuquerque Police Department, issues ultimately addressed in an ongoing settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that mandates reforms.

So as shocking and disturbing as it was to watch the videos of APD officers fatally shooting 38-year-old James Boyd — a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with a history of violence — those recordings proved invaluable in deconstructing how a complaint about a man camping illegally in the Sandia foothills prompted an hourslong standoff and escalated to his death at the hands of police. The recordings were also key to the filing of murder charges against the two police officers who fired on Boyd when he pulled two knives out of his backpack. The trial ended in a hung jury and a decision to not re-file the charges, but not before APD’s institutional problems and missteps that led to the shooting were revealed.

The recordings originated from several lapel- and helmet-mounted cameras worn by APD officers. Had Chasey’s proposed legislation been on the books at the time, it would have been anyone’s guess — outside of APD — what actually occurred at the base of the mountain that day in March 2014.

Then there are the serious logistical questions. What qualifies as “mental illness?” Who decides whether a police-recorded video involves a “mentally ill” person? Would a licensed and competent mental health professional make such a call based solely on a video of an incident, or does it go to court, or does medical/family/criminal history come into play, or would it fall to APD, creating a clear conflict of interest?

Chasey’s bill also would allow the purportedly mentally ill person involved to waive protections in the bill, raising the question of whether he or she could competently make such a decision or know what is in their own best interest.

Chasey’s plan would create an ill-advised exemption to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, one of the most powerful tools New Mexicans have for ensuring and demanding governmental accountability. It has proven its worth, in its current form, time and again. It is a key reason APD is undergoing transformational reforms.

Chasey’s proposal is not a solution to a problem, or even a solution in search of a problem. Instead, it will hide problems from the public. That’s wrong for all New Mexicans, most especially the vulnerable residents who deal with mental illness and need the public to ensure they are protected.

— Albuquerque Journal


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