Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Vast Difference in NYPD Provision of Body Camera Footage to District Attorneys Versus Police Watchdog

first comm holds

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

One of the most visible changes to American policing in the wake of the controversial 2014 killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed black men, by law enforcement, is the proliferation of body-worn cameras. But as the cameras become a larger part of the police oversight constellation in New York City, the NYPD has been slow to release footage to the very agency meant to investigate alleged officer misconduct, including excessive, even deadly, force.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the launch of phase one of the body-worn camera (BWC) program in 2017, it was billed as a transparency measure aimed at reducing “mistrust between police and community.” But the purported effort to improve police accountability has been more focused on producing evidence in criminal cases — where discovery laws now require it — and less on supporting misconduct investigations by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the main agency tasked with carrying them out.

When an arrest is made, the arresting officer sends complete BWC footage of the event to prosecutors almost immediately and in raw, unedited form, according to spokespeople from several New York City district attorneys’ offices. But the NYPD has been delayed or completely delinquent in providing footage to the CCRB in roughly a third of the Board’s open cases — cases raised by civilians against police officers, including ones that may not have involved an arrest.

The CCRB is a civilian body separate from the police department and district attorneys, with jurisdiction over claims of excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language. Its Board members are appointed by the mayor in conjunction with the City Council and police commissioner, and it is led by an executive director supervising roughly 180 employees. Under a 2012 agreement with the NYPD, the Board can prosecute allegations it substantiates in an administrative trial setting. Such a trial led outgoing Police Commissioner James O’Neill to fire Daniel Pantaleo this summer for misconduct during Garner’s fatal arrest.

The de Blasio administration announced the completed roll-out of roughly 20,000 BWCs to all uniformed police officers in March, after two years piloting the program. Another 4,000 cameras have since been deployed to members of specialized NYPD units.

Month-to-month data published by the CCRB in October shows that since the full implementation of body cameras was announced, between 29 and 37 percent of its open investigations have footage requests pending with the NYPD. Prosecutors, on the other hand, have received hundreds of thousands of BWC videos since the technology was adopted, and in most cases the footage is transmitted automatically following an arrest.

Police officers are required to turn body cameras on during arrests, incidents where force is used, as well as certain stops and searches, patrols, and interactions with the public. The NYPD Patrol Guide also requires cameras be turned on during “potential crime-in-progress assignments,” including investigations into a “suspicious person” and any incident involving a weapon.

As body cameras have proliferated across New York, they have become increasingly essential to the work of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, according to officials who say the evidence is “crucial” in investigating alleged misconduct -- the CCRB can only open a case when a civilian complaint is lodged.

They are also used by prosecutors in nearly every criminal case and the footage now falls under the state’s discovery laws, which lawmakers overhauled this year.

According to the communications director for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, Oren Yaniv, Gonzalez’s office has accessed over 140,000 body worn camera videos since 2018. Other district attorney offices also reported receiving thousands of BWC videos.

Spokespeople for New York City district attorneys described a proprietary management system used by the NYPD that automatically transmits footage once an officer plugs their camera into a docking station and registers an arrest. “The NYPD system does not allow deleting, editing or altering the videos,” Yaniv wrote in an email.

Cooperating with the CCRB
The CCRB’s requests are handled differently. The results can mean censored and incomplete footage and significant delays in responding to investigators, who are operating under a statute of limitations.

Video footage, whether from a body-worn device, cell phone, or security camera, has become instrumental to CCRB investigations. In September, the CCRB substantiated 38 percent of misconduct allegations where video of the incident was available, compared with just 11 percent of cases where no video was available, according to an analysis released by the agency.

“The reality of policing in New York City is that Eric Garner’s death in 2014 is not the only instance of police misconduct captured on video,” said CCRB Chair Fred Davie, at the agency’s September Board meeting.

Body-worn cameras help the CCRB make conclusive determinations, “but we can do so only if we receive that body-worn camera footage and receive it from the NYPD in a timely fashion,” Davie said.

Under the City Charter, the police department has a legal obligation to provide BWC video and other evidence to the CCRB, according to a CCRB representative. But, unlike prosecutors collecting evidence related to an arrest, the CCRB’s requests are subject to redaction and censorship, as well as delay.

Before sending footage to the CCRB, the NYPD is legally required to “pixelate-out” people’s faces under certain circumstances captured on film, according to Al Baker, director of media relations at the police department. “For example, potential medical treatment (protected under federal law) or other prisoners in a cell whose arrest may be sealed,” he wrote in an email.

“Also, we withhold the sex-crimes videos in their entirety, pursuant to CRL 50-b [part of the state’s civil rights statute], unless a waiver is provided by the victim of the sex crime. This is a meticulous process that is necessary before release,” he added.

Baker said the department has a dedicated body-worn camera unit for processing requests, which he says has received additional personnel to address the “backlog.”

CCRB officials are indeed concerned that “unless there is a significant change, the backlog of CCRB requests for video evidence will continue to increase and impair the CCRB’s ability to complete investigations within the 18-month statute of limitations,” according to a September tweet from the Board’s account.

“With all of its resources and technical expertise, the NYPD can and must produce body-camera footage much more quickly,” wrote Christopher Dunn, Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

From January 2018 to November 7, 2019, the CCRB requested body camera footage in 5,149 investigations, according to data shared with Gotham Gazette. Throughout 2019, the number of requests has been between 300 and 400 per month, with two exceptions. The first month that the number of active body camera-involved cases reached 300 was in October 2018, five months before City Hall announced the full rollout of the cameras.

But it wasn’t until the complete implementation in March of this year that the NYPD’s response rate precipitously fell. Between January 2018 and February 2019, the portion of CCRB cases awaiting NYPD body camera footage hovered between just 1 and 17 percent. Since March, that range has lept to between 29 and 37 percent.

Footage in about 43 percent of requests is turned over by the NYPD to the CCRB within 30 days, and another 35 percent take between 30 and 60 days. In about 13 percent of footage requests by the CCRB — 79 cases as of the end of September — the calls have gone unanswered by the NYPD for more than 90 days.

“Even now, there is one case in particular — an allegation of excessive force and a civilian experiencing several broken bones and brain hemorrhaging — for which our investigators per the NYPD cannot access the body-worn camera footage related to that case,” Davie said at the September Board meeting. The police department, he said, had denied the request in order to protect the privacy of a minor who was present in the relevant footage.

Asked about the CCRB's trouble getting police body camera footage, the mayor's office said it is under review. “We are reviewing these reports, and we will work with PD and CCRB on next steps,” wrote Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, in an October email to Gotham Gazette.

The City Council Committee on Public Safety plans to hold an oversight hearing on Monday, November 18 to examine the police department’s implementation of the cameras. The committee will discuss a bill introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that would require the NYPD to report information on the BWC program, including each incident where an officer uses their camera.

Baker noted that the NYPD this year has the largest deployment of body cameras in the nation, “therefore, we need to locate all BWC footage from any responding officer to a particular scene and make sure it goes through that rigorous process before being released.”

Even the process of releasing footage to the CCRB and the public has been opaque since the city’s rollout of BWCs, and remains so for the CCRB.

The police department recently published a two-page policy, an “operations order” within the department, for release of body camera footage of what it calls “critical incidents” —  cases of death or serious injury because of police force — to the public, seven months since full implementation of the cameras was announced.

But while it discusses release of body camera footage to prosecutors and the public, the policy makes no explicit mention of footage capturing other potential misconduct that would fall under the CCRB’s jurisdiction. An NYPD spokesperson confirmed by phone that dealing with CCRB requests falls outside the newly-published policy.

When asked if any written procedure exists, Baker wrote in an email, “That practice is constantly being fine-tuned to offer even faster turnarounds considering that a single request from the CCRB, about a single policing encounter, can mean that lengthy videos from dozens of officers must be carefully reviewed and possibly redacted.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How the City's New Jails Plan Accounts for Those with Serious Mental Illness

Rikers Island inmate detainee

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

In an historic vote last month, the New York City Council approved the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with four borough-based jails by 2026. When the Council voted through the plan, estimated at $8.7 billion in new construction costs, it also announced, with Mayor Bill de Blasio, a $391-million package of citywide and community investments in criminal justice reforms and initiatives to responsibly accelerate the reduction of the city’s jail population.

For city officials, one of the most complex issues they face is ensuring that the new system is less punitive and more rehabilitative, particularly for the 43% of incarcerated individuals who suffer from some form of mental illness. Experts and advocates say the plan is taking an appropriate approach to that issue but also insist that it provides a novel opportunity to rethink how the criminal justice system deals with the mentally ill, especially those suffering from more acute problems.

Given that one of de Blasio’s signature programs as mayor is the ThriveNYC mental health “roadmap” spearheaded by his wife, Chirlane McCray, the mayor’s approach to services for those with severe mental illness, particularly those who wind up involved in the criminal justice system, has been the source of intense scrutiny, again heightened as the new jails plan was crafted.

With most major crimes at or near record lows in the city and recent shifts in law enforcement and prosecutorial policies, particularly around non-violent offenses, the number of people incarcerated in city jails has been consistently declining. That drop has been so sharp that the de Blasio administration projects the average daily jail population to fall to 3,300 by 2026, when Rikers is set to close, down from about 7,000 this year and aided by state bail reform that will go into effect in January.

The Rikers closure plan will involve building four new facilities in every borough except Staten Island, with roughly 885 beds each. The facilities are meant to be fairer and safer than the dilapidated jails on Rikers. Another 250 new beds will be created in existing public hospital facilities for those individuals who require continuing access to specialized medical services.

Mayor Bill de Blasio himself has acknowledged that the city has its work cut out for it when it comes to individuals with mental illness who are locked up in jails. The day after the Council’s vote, the mayor made his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show and a caller named Winston who was formerly incarcerated on Rikers prodded him on improving access to mental health services. De Blasio emphasized the decarceral aspects of the plan, which include greater investments in alternatives to incarceration, supervised release programs, and mental health initiatives.

“This thing is not in isolation. Six years of changing the approach to criminal justice and it’s all been consistent with reducing crime at the same time and I’m very convinced that this is the right approach,” said the second-term Democrat. “But you’re right, it will take some important adjustments and investments and getting people more access to mental health services, which is the whole concept behind the Thrive[NYC] initiative, is absolutely necessary going forward, and providing better and more consistent mental health for those who do happen to be incarcerated, which is also in this plan.”

One of the key elements of how things unfold will be the dichotomy of mental health services for those with serious mental illness who need treatment while serving jail time versus those who can be removed from or kept out of jail given appropriate treatment options and enrollment in such programming.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, said, “The time of locking people up because they're mentally ill has to come to an end. This is why we are creating new Intensive Mobile Treatment (IMT) teams to provide intensive treatment to adults with recent and frequent contact with the mental health, substance use, criminal justice, and homeless services systems. It is time to eliminate an unjust system that has criminalized mental illness and destroyed so many of our communities.” 

In a background briefing, an official from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which took point on the jails plan, laid out the various pillars of the city’s approach. The official reemphasized what de Blasio said on the radio: that the administration’s focus is to minimize the number of people in jail with behavioral health, mental health, and substance misuse problems, and to prevent reincarceration by providing services that address their needs.

Correctional Health Services, an arm of NYC Health+Hospitals, is charged with providing medical services to the city’s jail system, from pre-arraignment through reentry. According to a H+H spokesperson, roughly one-third of the 43% of detainees who receive a mental illness diagnosis have severe mental illness – schizophrenia, bipolar or depressive disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder – making up about 16% of the total jail population. For a population of about 7,000 detainees, that means just over 1,100 people with serious mental illnesses at any given time.

Currently, each jail has what H+H says is the equivalent of an outpatient clinic. For detainees with serious mental illness, intellectual disabilities, or who might be more vulnerable in the general jail population, there are 18 so-called mental observation (MO) units across the 10 jails and Horizon Juvenile Center. There are also inpatient psychiatric beds at Bellevue Hospital for men and at Elmhurst Hospital for women, all of whom are considered part of the city’s jail population while being treated.

The community investments package that the City Council and mayor agreed to includes an expansion by Correctional Health Services of two programs that provide discharge and reentry services to the formerly incarcerated, the Community Reentry Assistance Network (CRAN) and Point of Reentry and Transition (PORT) programs.

Though the city is hoping for the best, it is planning for the worst. About 40% of the beds in the new borough jails will be therapeutic housing units to account for the percentage of the jail population that suffers at least some kind of mental illness.

The city plans to reduce the population through various efforts, including implementing recommendations from the city’s Crisis Prevention and Response Task Force announced last month, which will change how police respond to people experiencing mental health crises. The city is putting $23 million in total towards those recommendations by 2023, which includes adding four Health Engagement and Assessment (HEAT) teams of clinicians and peers who have experienced mental illness to handle non-emergency responses, and six more mobile crisis teams (mental health professionals who respond to calls to the NYC-WELL hotline) to conduct home visits and respond to urgent situations.

These programs aim to ensure that people suffering from mental illness do not wind up in jail, or back in jail as the case may be.

Additionally, the city is investing $11.2 million to add 380 beds of “justice-involved supporting housing,” for a total of 500 across the city, and is increasing the number of post-release transitional beds for those with mental health needs and a history of homelessness to 500 with a $25 million investment.

About $27 million in new funding will go to mental health services (for a total of $37 million) through various programs. And the Council also passed the Get Well And Get Out Act, which will allow those with serious mental illness to push for their release from custody if they improve with treatment.

But the official from MOCJ conceded that there will inevitably be individuals with serious mental illnesses in jails, despite the city’s best efforts to reduce that population, which has stubbornly hovered in the 10-15% range even as the overall numbers of detainees have fallen. Almost all of the people held in city jails are either awaiting trial, locked up due to a parole violation, or serving sentences of under one year.

The new borough facilities and the Rikers plan account for the fact that some detainees will suffer from serious mental illnesses by expanding two key programs that address this population: Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) and Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness (PACE).

The Council’s agreement with the mayor includes $12.8 million to double the number of existing PACE units by the end of the current fiscal year. The city has yet to decide the breakdown of those units in the borough facilities, the MOCJ official said.

The 250 new Outposted Therapeutic Units outside the jail system, however, will be dedicated to those individuals who have some form of substance abuse disorder, mental health or behavioral health issue as well as a complex need for medical care. The MOCJ official said they had identified a gap in the current continuum of care for these detainees, who don’t necessarily require inpatient hospitalization but benefit from proximity to specialized care. They can spend hours going to and from hospitals for even the shortest of check ups with specialists. 

The city is currently in the process of identifying vacant sites for those units and has contracted Lothrop Associates to conduct a feasibility study that is expected to be concluded by the end of the year, the MOCJ official said. The study will help determine the costs and needs of the new facilities and the city will then put out solicitations for redesigning the new spaces to accommodate incarcerated individuals. The project is separate from the borough-based jails plan and the official said it would likely move much faster since it would not require approval through the city’s land use process.

Insha Rahman, director of Strategy and New Initiatives at the Vera Institute, said a larger goal of the Rikers closure plan should be to minimize the harm that jails do to inmates, not just those with mental illness.

“If we're going to say, ‘We are still going to have incarceration in this city,’ which we are, for the foreseeable future, 5, 10, maybe even 20, 30 years from now, we should be constructing these new facilities as buildings first, and then outfitting them to be places of incarceration so that they're not built with just incarceration and jail design front and center,” she said in a phone interview. 

She cited the example of jails in countries like Germany and Norway. “To the extent that we're thinking about how do we address people's underlying needs and how do we provide therapeutic care and counseling for those who are in custody, anything that looks fundamentally like a jail is going to inflict some amount of harm and trauma,” she added, insisting that the city should look not to prison architects but to behavioral and mental health experts for ideas for the new jails.

Rahman also urged the administration and Council to invest further at the community level in permanent affordable housing, community-based treatment and counselling that can preempt interactions with the criminal justice system.

A stark reality that the city faces is dealing with those individuals with serious mental illness who pose a threat to themselves and others, a concern that was brought to the fore last month when a mentally ill homeless man killed four men sleeping on the street in Chinatown. It prompted the city to review how it implements Kendra’s Law, which allows courts to mandate involuntary “assisted outpatient treatment” for such individuals. That review is meant to be completed by next week. The number of individuals ordered into treatment under the law was 2,476 in fiscal year 2018, down from 2,517 in fiscal year 2017 but up from 2,368 in fiscal year 2016 and 2,176 in fiscal year 2015, according to data provided by the de Blasio administration.

Rahman warned against harsher enforcement of the law. “I think enforcing Kendra's Law more strongly is not necessarily going to get us fewer people in our jails that have serious mental health needs,” she said. “I think the most important initial response is more community-based treatments and figuring out how can we actually resource families and neighbors.”

There is some disagreement on that front, however. D.J. Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org, criticized the city’s ThriveNYC mental health initiative and called for an expansion of Kendra’s Law in an op-ed in the New York Daily News following the Chinatown murders.

Jaffe argues the City Council should require “the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to start evaluating all seriously mentally ill people being discharged from Rikers; all seriously mentally ill leaving shelters; and all mentally ill patients being discharged from city hospitals after an involuntary commitment. Those are the three highest risk groups; evaluate them all to see if they are eligible for Kendra’s Law and get them into it if they are.”

Minister, Dr. Victoria A. Phillips of the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project echoed Rahman’s view, but also stressed that the new jails should prioritize interactions between detainees and health care workers, rather than with corrections officers.

“Behind correctional walls, it’s never the health staff that takes the lead, and I think the Department of Corrections has shown itself to be unable to change its culture of violence,” she said, pointing to the most recent report by a federal monitor with oversight of the city’s Department of Correction, which showed that use of force by corrections officers has risen dramatically while the jail population has dropped.

Former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who led the independent commission that proposed the leading Rikers closure plan, praised the approach the city is taking, while acknowledging that the overarching objective is to keep people with mental illness out of jails. “If you have people who the system decides to incarcerate, then you have to deal with that,” he said in a phone interview. “In an ideal world...people who have serious problems with mental health should get help and not be incarcerated. But, you know, we don't live in the ideal world.”

[READ: 'No One Should Enter the Criminal Justice System for Something Related to Mental Illness']

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated. 

First Deputy Mayor on Next Steps for Voter-Approved 'Rainy Day Fund'

control board bdb

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)

With voter approval of a city charter amendment to pursue the creation of a budgetary “rainy day fund” in New York City, de Blasio administration officials are now looking to change state laws so that the city can actually start one.

“We’re going to have to work together to make this happen,” said First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan at a breakfast event hosted by the Citizens Budget Commission Wednesday morning, just a few hours after polls closed on Tuesday night.

Voters had overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the city charter that would allow the city to set aside revenue in a savings account meant to cushion the impact of a future economic downturn and city revenue dip — the inevitable rainy day. Until the charter amendment passed this week, provisions in both city and state law required the city to balance its budget every year, meaning savings cannot be carried over from one fiscal year to another. Now, only state law requires a balanced city budget.

While the city continues to enjoy a period of economic prosperity since the 2008-2009 fiscal crisis, economists say it must brace for potential dips, whether slowing growth or recession. In the last two national recessions, the city economy contracted significantly and took years to rebound, according to a Citizens Budget Commission report, “To Weather A Storm: Create a Rainy Day Fund.” According to the CBC analysis, the gross city product (GCP) fell 7.6 percent from 2000 to 2002 and took another three years to reach its pre-recession size; from 2007 to 2009 GCP fell 9 percent and did not reach its previous peak until 2013.

In situations like these, the city can quickly exhaust any reserves that may be available, and, in the absence of a rainy day fund, must cut services, raise taxes, and/or fall on short-term borrowing, all of which have consequences that are exacerbated in a recession.

Currently, the city is able to put public funds into “reserves,” which are created through budgetary maneuvers that, among other things, allow the city to prepay for certain resources, debt service, and retiree health benefits costs. But fiscal watchdogs say the reserves would not be sufficient to combat a serious dip in the economy or an emergency crisis, and are a fraction of what a rainy day fund could cover.

The city budget has grown tremendously since the last recession in 2008-2009. Since the beginning of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure in 2014, it has risen nearly $20 billion to $92.8 billion in the current fiscal year. About $6 billion of the total is currently in year-of reserves.

“It’s a historic level of reserves,” which the city has not previously achieved, said Fuleihan, a former director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and a veteran fiscal policy advisor in the State Assembly. “But it is not a rainy day fund. It’s not a traditional way of doing that, and now we have the opportunity to do that.”

The rainy day fund amendment was one of 19 proposed changes to the city charter, which voters in New York City had an opportunity to approve or reject this fall based on the work of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, to which the mayor had several appointees along with other citywide and boroughwide officials. The proposals came in the form of five questions covering elections, police oversight, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use. All five questions passed by wide margins.

The laws requiring New York City to balance its budget each year came out of the city’s 1975 fiscal crisis, in which the city’s debt obligations brought it close to bankruptcy. In response, the state enacted the Financial Emergency Act, which required a balanced budget and the use of generally accepted accounting principles as a way to ensure the city’s fiduciary obligations do not exceed its revenue. In 2005, those requirements were incorporated in the city charter.

With the charter amendments that remove those requirements, state laws are the only remaining statutes preventing New York City from adopting a rainy day fund. State Senator Brian Benjamin, a Manhattan Democrat who is considering a run for city comptroller, has introduced a bill that would authorize the city to create a rainy day fund (the fund is described in the bill as a “municipal contingency and tax stabilization reserve fund”). 

For the de Blasio administration, the issue at hand now is not simply a matter of changing the state law. Fuleihan says he hopes to work with the state to devise a partnership that gives the city ultimate control over its budget and rainy day funds. Budget watchdogs are also hoping state lawmakers include statutory restrictions on when the rainy day funds may be spent to ensure that they are used as intended during periods of economic hardship.

“The first step occurred [Tuesday] and now we need to talk about what that looks like,” Fuleihan told the CBC audience Wednesday, “and to make sure that the city is the determining factor in what this rainy day fund looks like.”

“I think we do have to be careful about that,” he added.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: In Its First Year, Early Voting Gives Glimpse of Modern New York ElectionIn Its First Year, Early Voting Gives Glimpse of Modern New York Election Gotham Gazette: New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here? New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here? Gotham Gazette: 7 Years After Sandy - Part I 7 Years After Sandy - Part I Gotham Gazette: The Max & Murphy Podcast The Max & Murphy Podcast