Technology

NYPD Finally Releases A Body Camera Policy That Gives The Department Plenty Of Ways To Withhold Footage

The NYPD has finally finalized its body-worn camera footage release policy. It’s not much better than its initial public offering, which sought public input and then ignored every bit of the public’s input to craft an officer-friendly deployment policy that left the act of recording to officer discretion.

Even the vague promise of eventually releasing BWC footage to the public was too much for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to bear. The NYC PBA sued to prevent the release of body camera footage to the public. This lawsuit was pursued as PBA President Pat Lynch made claims about officers’ resistance to body-worn cameras that were contradicted by NYPD officers’ statements.

Something the former mayor thought would be a “gotcha” tool to persecute otherwise fine officers has actually had zero effect on officer accountability or NYPD transparency to this point. It’s not going to get any better either. The official policy [PDF] released by the NYPD still gives the public the shaft.

The editorial board for the New York Daily News sums it up nicely:

[V]ideo from the cameras cops wear — which, after all, the public pay for — should be presumed subject to release, with narrow exceptions clearly articulated by NYPD brass.

To the contrary, [Police Commissioner Jimmy] O’Neill’s memo says “the Department will decide when to publicly release BWC (body-worn camera) footage of a critical incident within 30 calendar days.” Just a decision within a month?

That’s all the NYPD is promising: a “decision” within 30 days. It’s not promising release within 30 days. It’s just promising to think about it in a somewhat timely manner. That’s the best New York residents are going to get from their Finest.

The NYPD also has plenty of options allowing it to decide — within 30 days — that it won’t be releasing anything at all. Exceptions abound.

Any public release of BWC footage may be delayed, redacted, or in some cases, the Department may forego public release, in order to:

a. Comply with federal, state, or local law governing disclosure of records or existing Department procedures,
b. Protect confidential sources and witnesses,
c. Protect a person’s right to a fair trial,
d. Protect the identity of victims of sex crimes, domestic violence and juveniles,
e. Protect the privacy, life or safety of any person, and/or
f. Avoid undue trauma due to explicit or graphic content.

This all may sound reasonable and thoughtful, but in the context of this policy, it gives the NYPD multiple ways to withhold footage that doesn’t show its officers in the best light. This policy covers release of recordings containing the use of deadly or excessive force and other incidents the Police Commissioner feels may “address vast public attention.”

Footage that is exonerative will be cleared for release. Footage that isn’t will be withheld. The excuses are built in.

Consider the death of Eric Garner. Officer Daniel Pantaleo deployed an against-policy chokehold and killed Garner. If body cam footage had been captured, this policy would have exempted it from release. Officer Pantaleo was criminally charged. “Protecting the right to a fair trial” would be invoked. Possibly the “undue trauma” exception as well.

If an officer rapes someone, beats a domestic partner on camera (there is precedent!), or violates the right of a juvenile, this footage could be withheld under the “protect the victims” exception, even though it’s a cop committing the crime. If this seems like an impossibility, let’s not forget officers invoking victims’ rights laws to keep the press from publishing their names while discussing their lawsuits and/or prosecutions. Sure, the public will call bullshit, but the NYPD still has control of the recordings.

The exemption for federal law is another dodge. There are no federal agencies utilizing body cameras. In fact, until recently, partnering with a federal agency meant turning off body cameras or leaving them back at the station. Anything involving federal officers will likely be deemed unreleasable, no matter how high the level of public interest.

This isn’t even up to the level of “will this do?” This is the NYPD giving residents what the NYPD wants while pretending it cares about transparency or accountability.

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