Gotham Gazette Wed, 12 Aug 2020 06:41:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Initial Report Shows Benefits and Challenges of NYPD Body Camera Program for Police Watchdog NYPD body cameras

Mayor de Blasio checks out an NYPD body camera (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

A new report by the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board shows body-worn cameras have helped the police watchdog close hundreds of misconduct cases by substantially improving its ability to prove and disprove allegations. While CCRB officials believe the technology has become an indispensable tool, it has also presented new challenges for the agency as it seeks greater transparency from the NYPD.

The report, released Thursday, is the first of its kind on the New York City body camera program. It shows that the number of CCRB police misconduct cases that were closed with sufficient evidence, or “on the merits,” more than doubled from 37 percent to 76 percent when body-worn camera (BWC) footage was available. Now, with the number of requests skyrocketing, the CCRB is seeing more obstacles to obtaining relevant, unedited video and the rate of sharing footage  has slowed.

“BWC footage represents some of the most defining evidence in cases in which misconduct occurred and in cases in which the officer’s actions were within the boundaries of the law and the NYPD Patrol Guide,” wrote CCRB Chair Fred Davie in a letter accompanying the report.

From 2017 to 2019, the CCRB was able to prove an allegation was true and within its jurisdiction in 31 percent of completed investigations where BWC footage was available, compared with just 13 percent of investigations without BWC or other video. The board was able to exonerate complaints, meaning the allegation was found to be true but not a misconduct violation, in 30 percent of complaints with evidence from BWCs. Without BWCs, even with other forms of video evidence at hand, the exoneration rate is 20%.

“The NYPD has the largest deployment of body cameras in the nation with every officer outfitted and roughly 130,000 videos generated each week. These cameras shed light on our officers’ everyday encounters with New Yorkers and help to cultivate trust with the New Yorkers they are sworn to serve,” wrote NYPD spokesperson Devora Kaye in a statement responding to the new CCRB report.

The NYPD began piloting body-worn cameras in April 2017, with about 1,300 officers equipped by the end of that year. By August 2019, the end of the report’s study period, the NYPD had deployed 24,000 cameras to all patrol officers and certain special units. As the cameras proliferated, the number of BWC requests from the CCRB exploded: from 410 in the second quarter of 2018 to 1,134 during the same period in 2019, the report shows.

With the greater appetite for body camera footage and the promise of better evidence has come frustrations for the CCRB.

From May 2017 to June 2019, the CCRB reported receiving BWC video in only half of the roughly 4,000 cases it requested footage for. In the first half of 2019, the average length of time for the NYPD to respond to CCRB requests doubled. The CCRB also raised concerns about officers obstructing cameras or failing to record a complete interaction, as well as about the department’s training of officers to warn one another when their body cameras are recording.

The city’s ongoing body camera pilot was court-mandated in response to the NYPD’s racially-biased overuse of stop-and-frisk policing, which was found to be in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments in 2013. The cameras are intended to provide a “contemporaneous, objective record” of stops and frisks both to protect civilians from police misconduct and officers from false accusations, wrote the judge in Floyd v. City of New York.

However, as Gotham Gazette first reported, the CCRB faces significant delays in receiving requested footage, which is often edited or fully denied, while prosecutors collecting evidence for trial receive unredacted footage virtually automatically and within a matter of hours. That revelation and others helped spur advocates and city officials to seek reforms to the NYPD’s video-sharing practices, which culminated last November in a lauded agreement to grant the CCRB more direct access to BWC recordings.

“Implementing an initiative as robust as this is a complex and evolving process, and last November, the NYPD and CCRB executed an agreement that fostered our shared goals of transparency and accountability and streamlined the sharing of video,” Kaye wrote.

The CCRB is an oversight agency largely appointed by the mayor, which is separate from the police department and charged with investigating and, in serious cases, prosecuting certain categories of alleged police misconduct. It has jurisdiction over four types of complaints, known as FADO: use of force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language. When it discovers potential misconduct outside of FADO, the agency refers the issue to the police department’s internal affairs bureau. The CCRB can only open a case when a civilian makes a complaint.

The new report shows over the first seven months of 2019, the police department’s average response time to CCRB footage requests doubled from an average of 20 business days to 42 business days (for instances when no footage was recovered, the CCRB was informed its request was denied after an average of 37 days).

Over time, the NYPD has increasingly turned to editing or redacting footage before handing it over to CCRB investigators, citing state laws intended to protect personal privacy. In the first year since the body camera pilot began, redacted videos accounted for between zero and 17 percent of all footage provided to the CCRB. A year later, between April and July 2019, roughly two-thirds of all body camera footage received by the CCRB had been redacted by the NYPD’s Legal Bureau, according to the report.

Of all cases where the NYPD shared body camera footage with the CCRB, 43 percent have had footage redacted.

The NYPD says it must review, edit, or redact all requested video before turning it over to CCRB investigators because of state privacy laws, which contribute to the delays. The NYPD frequently cites statutes that protect the identity of minors, of people whose arrests have been sealed, and people receiving medical treatment, among others. The report recommends granting the CCRB access to sealed arrests, which can often result from unconstitutional stops -- the exact type of misconduct body cameras were originally meant to capture.

Officials from both the NYPD and CCRB believe the memorandum of understanding signed last November will improve response times and satisfy the practical concerns of police and investigators. The MOU will allow CCRB representatives to view unedited footage in a secured room before redactions are made, giving investigators the opportunity to better understand what evidence is relevant to their cases and easing the burden on police to review footage.

“It is our hope that this new system will streamline CCRB’s access to BWC footage, which is pivotal to our work,” Davie wrote. CCRB officials say the secured room should be operational by June.

As the agency comes to rely more on evidence from body cameras, it also has a growing need for digital storage space. The CCRB estimates that beginning in fiscal year 2021 the size of stored body camera audio and video will grow at a rate of 50 percent annually. It estimates storage costs will rise to $144,000 per year by fiscal year 2024.

The report also points to a number of potential and official misuses of body cameras that in some cases are widespread. Among them officers failing to record a full civilian interaction -- either turning their cameras on late or off early -- or obstructing the lens, especially with winter clothing. Particularly in use-of-force incidents and during police chases, body cameras can become dislodged or fall off, which often results in footage becoming interrupted or shut off, the report says.

According to the report, the NYPD Patrol Guide does not prohibit intentionally obstructing camera footage and the CCRB “identified instances where officers have used signals to prevent or halt the recording of police misconduct.”

The CCRB report singles out police practices around recording entry into civilian homes and places of work. It recommends officers be trained to activate their cameras prior to arriving at a residence in order to capture the entire interaction. The CCRB notes 10 percent of abuse of authority allegations are related to home entry.

The report also recommends the NYPD pursue technology compatible with its current cameras that automatically activates nearby body cameras when a police firearm or taser goes off. Other software would place a geo-tag on body camera footage, providing investigators more information about where an incident occured.

Another issue of particular concern to CCRB investigators is officers warning others when their cameras are recording, using code phrases like, “I went Hollywood,” “green,” or “we’re live,” or gestures like shoulder-brushing. The CCRB report cites a letter from the NYPD’s Legal Bureau, which states officers are trained to warn each other to “ensure that sensitive law enforcement conversation are not inadvertently captured on BWC video.”

The report also notes the NYPD Patrol Guide requires officers to inform members of the public when they are recording an interaction, which police representatives maintain is appropriate to address privacy concerns, ensure compliance with body camera policies, and to help deescalate volatile interactions.

The department “conducts robust auditing of body camera video – from the command level up through the bureau and oversight level – to address policy compliance, quality of the video and the quality of the police service. Follow-up action can include everything from instruction to formal discipline,” Kaye wrote.

While considered serious by the CCRB, the agency identified only 53 instances of misconduct related to the use of BWCs out of the 2,033 instances where it received footage. (The CCRB cannot investigate that type of misconduct, because it falls outside of FADO; it must be reported to NYPD internal affairs.)

The report recommends amending the Patrol Guide to explicitly prohibit officers from obstructing cameras or warning fellow officers that they are rolling “in an effort to obfuscate or facilitate police misconduct.” Doing so, however, could raise concerns among privacy watchdogs who want greater disclosure around the use of surveillance technology.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Initial Report Shows Benefits and Challenges of NYPD Body Camera Program for Police Watchdog Wed, 26 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Deadly NYPD Shooting of Officer and Civilian Tests New Body Camera Footage Policy anto reyes police body cam

Monday's press conference at City Hall (photo: @changethenypd)

[Update (Sunday Dec. 15): on Friday, Dec. 13, the NYPD released body camera footage in this case]

Antonio Williams’ parents were not allowed to see their son in the hospital before he died from police gunshot wounds he sustained while attempting to flee a police stop in late September. Two-and-a-half months later, they are seeking footage from the body cameras worn by the officers involved that night and, in the process, are testing the NYPD’s new policy for publicly releasing video of what it calls “critical incidents,” including when civilians are killed by police.

NYPD Officer Brian Milkeen was also shot and killed by NYPD officers during the altercation as he wrestled with Williams. Many details of the event remain murky but a police department representative said Monday the NYPD expects to release footage of the incident "in the coming week."

At a tearful press conference on the steps of City Hall Monday, Williams’ family was joined by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (no relation), members of the City Council, and the families of other black men killed by police to seek details from Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD about the September shooting. Despite a recently-published policy designed to clarify and expedite the process of releasing footage to the public, Shawn and Gladys Williams, Antonio’s father and stepmother, say they have not been shown body-camera video of the events leading to their son’s death.

“At the end of the day, we just want the truth. We want to find out what happened that night, why it happened, what could have been done to prevent it happening,” said Shawn Williams. Shawn and Gladys were joined by Antonio’s brother, Justin, who wore a shirt that said “My Brother, My Guardian Angel.” Others held signs saying “Justice for Antonio Williams #ReleaseTheNames” and “De Blasio/NYPD Stop Blocking Transparency, Justice for Antonio Williams.”

On September 29, Mulkeen, in plainclothes, approached Antonio Williams in front of the Edenwald Houses, a NYCHA complex in the northeast Bronx, then chased and wrestled him to the ground after Williams fled, according to then-Police Commissioner James O’Neill. Other officers were also in pursuit. According to the police department, Mulkeen can be heard via the not-yet-released body camera recording yelling, “He’s reaching for it. He’s reaching for it,” as Williams is, according to the NYPD, seen reaching toward his waist. Both Mulkeen and Williams died by police gunfire. Officers on the scene discharged 15 rounds, O’Neill said.

Police reported finding a handgun on the scene belonging to Williams, which had not been fired. A witness said that Williams was waiting for a cab when he was approached. Advocates say that in New York State it is not, by itself, illegal to run from the police.

The police department has not released details to the Williams family or the public about what Williams was being stopped for or whether he was suspected of a crime while the events were unfolding. It is also unclear whether officers identified themselves as police before approaching Williams.

Jonathan Moore, a lawyer with Beldock Levine and Hoffman LLP who is representing Williams’ family, said they have requested these details, as well as the names of the officers involved and any body-worn camera footage recorded that night, which could illuminate what happened and whether police officers acted appropriately and within the law. Moore’s firm submitted a request for the body-camera footage and other details through the state’s Freedom of Information Law on Monday, Moore said.

“We are concerned that that information is being covered up,” Moore said at the press conference. “Let’s see some transparency here. Let’s level the playing field. Let’s have the evidence about what happened.”

On October 18, the NYPD quietly published a long-sought policy outlining how the department would approach publicly sharing body-worn camera footage of “critical incidents” -- police interactions where the use of force resulted in death or serious injury, or where releasing body camera video would “address vast public attention, or concern.” The policy came months after O’Neill and de Blasio announced the full implementation of the body-worn camera program. It was originally piloted as a way to hold officers accountable after a judge found the NYPD had for years unconstitutionally targeted people of color with stop-and-frisk policing. As of this fall, roughly 24,000 police officers have been equipped with cameras.

The shooting deaths of Mulkeen and Williams appear to fall squarely within the NYPD’s definition of a “critical incident,” and participants at the press conference Monday, organized by Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy coalition, said the department is in possession of video that could provide answers and closure for Williams’ family.

“We don’t even know what happened,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “We don’t know whether the officers did anything wrong, whether Antonio did something wrong. We don’t know anything. We’re standing here blind. The city has all the information and refuses to give it to us.”

The new policy says “the Department will decide when to publicly release BWC footage of a critical incident within 30 calendar days, excluding any non-disclosure period(s), provided that the force investigation review is completed.” It does not say whether it applies to events retroactively and does not guarantee footage will be published, leaving that decision entirely within the police commissioner’s discretion.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, police spokesperson Devora Kaye wrote, “The NYPD is committed to releasing footage of critical incidents captured by body-worn cameras within 30 days, with limited exceptions, while also balancing privacy concerns, protecting against compromising criminal investigations, and the need to comply with federal, state and local disclosure laws.”

“We expect to release the video from this incident in the coming week, and the Department will be sharing additional videos for other police involved shooting incidents in the coming weeks and months,” she wrote of the September 29 shooting.

Last month, under the new policy, the NYPD posted a 14-minute video of the fatal shooting of Gregory Edwards by police on Staten Island.

When asked whether the new policy should apply retroactively to Williams’ death and if Mayor de Blasio had discussed the matter with the police department, a mayoral spokesperson deferred to the NYPD.

A spokesperson for the Civilian Complaint Review Board says the watchdog agency has received no complaints stemming from the shooting, which is required in order to open an investigation.

The increasingly vocal public outcry around Williams’ death is setting up the September shooting to be one of the first tests of how the department will deal with critical incidents since the policy was released.

“I call on Dermot Shea, the new police commissioner: this is the first item on your plate,” said Moore on Monday. “We’re asking simply that there be full disclosure so that we can determine whether justice has been done in this matter.”

City Council Member Brad Lander, also a Brooklyn Democrat, said the police department will need to be more transparent about the application of the policy, especially in sharing video to the families of people killed by police. “A policy is written precisely to go out of the realm of implication into the realm of specific knowledge, and it is not clear. It does not obligate the NYPD to share [footage] with the family,” he told Gotham Gazette after the press conference.

Shaping the narrative and controlling the information around civilian deaths are hard and enduring issues for the loved ones of people killed by police. The new body-camera footage policy says the police department will release “representative samples” of the video but makes no commitment to publish footage completely or without redaction.

“Before they bring the evidence out, they want to tell it their way,” said Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, at the press conference. “But that officer [Brian Mulkeen] may have died for other reasons, we don’t know. They want to make Antonio the scapegoat like in so many other cases.”

Speaking the day after the shooting, then-Police Commissioner O’Neill told reporters, “Make no mistake, we lost the life of a courageous public servant solely due to a violent criminal who put the lives of the police and the people we serve in jeopardy.”

“We just need to know,” said Gladys Williams, Antonio’s stepmother. “It has been two-and-a-half months. It is hard to spend the holidays without our son.”

Note: this article has been updated to say the Civilian Complaint Review Board has not received a complaint in this matter.

[Update (Sunday Dec. 15): on Friday, Dec. 13, the NYPD released edited body camera footage in this case. Just prior to the release of that video, family of Antonio Williams and others held a press conference to criticize the mayor and NYPD, saying in an accompanying press release: "Antonio Williams’ father, stepmother and brother – joined by elected officials and police accountability advocates – rallied in front of NYPD headquarters to protest Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD’s refusal to provide Williams’ family with full access to unedited police body camera footage of the September 29th Bronx police killing of Antonio Williams and Officer Brian Mulkeen. The rally took place after the Williams family was able to preview an NYPD-produced video that is expected to be released publicly today."]

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Deadly NYPD Shooting of Officer and Civilian Tests New Body Camera Footage Policy Mon, 09 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD's New Agreement with Police Oversight Board Promises Better Access to Body Camera Footage de Blasio NYPD leaders

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

A new evidence-sharing agreement between the NYPD and its civilian watchdog agency around the department’s handling of police body-worn camera footage has the potential to significantly change the way misconduct investigations are carried out. But despite the NYPD’s recent commitment to greater transparency and cooperation, to be successful the agreement will require an element of trust in an interagency relationship marked by obfuscation and obstruction.

Under the new agreement, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will have more direct access to body camera video, which officials say will dramatically improve its ability to pursue police officer misconduct allegations. But the agreement also hints at the ongoing imbalance among the police department, the CCRB, and the public in terms of who controls footage captured by a system meant to make officers more accountable and policing more transparent.

In November, after months of negotiation, the NYPD and CCRB announced a memorandum of understanding establishing an intricate process that will allow officials from both agencies to view requested body camera video together without redaction, before it is subject to editing by the police department. The announcement closely followed a City Council oversight hearing and a series of articles by Gotham Gazette on the body camera program, including several on the CCRB’s struggle to obtain necessary footage.

“It is a real compromise and it’s going to let the CCRB do its job and provide effective, independent oversight of the NYPD,” said CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The CCRB is an oversight agency appointed by the mayor in partnership with the City Council and police commissioner to investigate civilian complaints related to excessive force and abuses of police authority, among other defined types of officer misconduct. The proliferation of body cameras across the police force gave advocates, reformers, and others hope that more misconduct claims could be verified or definitively dismissed.

In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced the full implementation of 20,000 officer-worn cameras to rank-and-file cops, and another 3,000-4,000 were handed out to specialized divisions later in the year.

Around the same time, the backlog of CCRB video inquiries skyrocketed and the number of the agency’s cases with pending requests roughly doubled. While CCRB investigators are relying more on evidence from the cameras to help substantiate claims, they are also having a harder time obtaining the footage. When they do, the footage is often censored or cut by the police department. In dozens of substantiated instances, the NYPD has falsely denied to the CCRB that it has body camera footage the Board has requested.

The new agreement calls on the city to create a “secure room” within CCRB headquarters that will function as an NYPD facility with access to the department’s BWC database. When CCRB investigators request footage, a representative will be present in the secure room while police officials search their system. That representative will be allowed to pass on notes about the raw video to CCRB investigators who can then request specific sections of tape. Once a narrowly described section of video is requested and subjected to NYPD editing, it can be shared outside the secure room.

“From neighborhood policing to body cameras for all patrol officers, this Administration has led a paradigm shift in the way our city is policed. We applaud the Police Department and Civilian Complaint Review Board for cutting red tape and working together to promote transparency and accountability,” wrote Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an email.

The change is likely a big step forward for the police watchdog. Under the current system, the NYPD acts as the sole owner of body camera footage with complete discretion to censor and redact footage and the ability to delay releasing it to the CCRB from the outset. Officials say the new approach allows the CCRB to monitor the video transfer process from as close to the beginning as possible (once an inquiry is made). It also helps deter “false negatives” in which the NYPD denies the existence of footage in its possession, an ongoing concern and repeat problem for the CCRB.

In the most serious cases of excessive police force, the NYPD may still “lockdown” footage if it is part of an internal inquiry by the department’s Force Investigation Division. Footage under lockdown will be searchable by a CCRB rep but not shared with CCRB investigators until after the NYPD division’s investigation is concluded.

To the extent that it outlines the parameters for interagency body camera video sharing, the agreement is an acknowledgement of the NYPD’s de facto ownership of body camera technology and the evidence it records. It still leaves the NYPD with ultimate access to the secure room and the footage database, unlike in other jurisdictions where the oversight body has direct access to video without having to go through the police department.

"While the latest MOU between the NYPD and CCRB may provide quicker access to some footage for the CCRB, it cements the NYPD's unilateral control of footage, including the ability to redact and restrict footage as it sees fit,” wrote Kesi Foster, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy coalition, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“The MOU makes no explicit allowances for survivors of police violence or their families to view footage and allows the NYPD to block CCRB access to footage in serious cases where excessive force is used - which are the exact cases that the public and CCRB should have immediate and unfettered access to footage,” Foster wrote.

Since the complete rollout of body-worn cameras, the NYPD has reserved the right to edit footage before release to the CCRB and the broader public (including the news media), saying state and federal privacy laws require it to do so (an NYPD policy memo issued in October, explicitly states this for release to the public, but not to the CCRB). The result has been a growing backlog of unfulfilled body camera footage requests to the CCRB that hamper its investigations, which need to be completed within an 18-month statute of limitations.

As of the end of October, the CCRB reported 574 cases (27 percent of all its investigations) in which body camera footage requests had not been fulfilled by the NYPD. Over half of those requests have been pending for more than 30 days.

The backlog and the NYPD’s ability to edit footage before turning it over to the CCRB have created a system where investigators are limited in what evidence they have access to, even when they are aware material footage exists. By contrast, the NYPD shares video of an arrest with prosecutors completely and almost immediately, suggesting that the new technology is being used more to prosecute civilians than investigate police misconduct.

The November agreement is a step away from that status quo. It creates certain checks on the NYPD’s ability to withhold or delay footage and improves trust in the body-worn cameras program as a police oversight system.

“There are a few takeaways from the agreement. The first is it’s going to significantly reduce the backlog once it’s fully implemented. The second is that it assures the CCRB that we are receiving all the relevant video in a case,” said Darche.

“It also takes the NYPD’s security concerns into account, and it assures civilians and members of the NYPD that their privacy rights won’t be violated,” he added.

The NYPD has maintained that, for releasing video to either the CCRB or the public, it must edit footage to ensure legally protected subject matter isn’t publicly disseminated. Police representatives have said the identities of minors and victims or survivors of sex crimes must be censored and any depiction of medical treatment redacted, pursuant to statutory privacy protections. Reviewing and editing footage is what causes the delays in transmitting evidence to the CCRB, officials say.

“One of the areas in dispute was the NYPD felt those statutes applied. We did not feel that those applied. The NYPD felt that blurring the faces of people allowed them to then release the video to us and that was a compromise we were willing to accept,” Darche said, referring to part of the agreement that deals with footage being shared outside the secure room.

The new agreement puts much more onus on the CCRB to request only the relevant footage as a way to reduce the burden on the NYPD to process the video. CCRB investigators will be required to “diligently conduct as many investigatory steps as reasonable” to determine whether potential video is relevant to their investigation before making a footage request, rather than submitting blanket requests for all potentially relevant footage.

“Under this agreement, CCRB investigators will obtain relevant records such as an arrest or summons associated with complaints prior to making a body-worn camera footage request, in order to make the search and viewing processes more efficient,” wrote Ethan Teicher, the CCRB press secretary, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

The additional costs to staff new positions in the secure room and to meet the additional investigatory requirements are yet to be determined, but officials think it will ultimately improve the process and lead to better, more coherent video searches.

Examining the raw footage “will be a shared responsibility between the NYPD and the CCRB, and it is the CCRB’s hope that involving Agency staff in the initial review of body-worn camera footage will provide additional, case-based knowledge that will make the process more efficient,” Teicher wrote.

“The CCRB will need to work with OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] and DCAS [Department of Citywide Administrative Services] for additional funding for the secure space. Initially, we expect both the NYPD and the CCRB to each have four staff members in the room, while the other terminals will be used by investigators tasked with reviewing the footage,” he added. The agency currently has roughly 100 investigators, according to a CCRB spokesperson in October.

In addition to a backlog of video request, the CCRB has reported a large number of false negatives in responses to requests for body camera video. In a July memo to CCRB board members, staff cited 147 cases where the police department said requested footage did not exist only to find out later that it did. In some cases the denied footage was leaked to the press, and in others officers under investigation reported reviewing footage that was previously said not to exist. As of July, the NYPD had acknowledged accidental false negatives in 19 cases, according to the memo.

“[T]he CCRB cannot accurately track the number of cases in which it received ‘false negatives’...because the Agency does not know what video the NYPD possess,” the memo stated.

The CCRB believes the new agreement changes that dynamic. “Having a presence in the secure room when a search is conducted should reduce the chance of generating a false negative,” Darche told Gotham Gazette.

While the agreement makes a commitment to involve the CCRB in the initial search for requested footage, it still establishes a lopsided relationship with the NYPD.

A footage search must be conducted by a member of the NYPD in the presence of a CCRB representative. Yet nothing under the agreement prevents the NYPD from accessing the secure room outside of established business hours, and allows the department to audit CCRB electronic access to the system. On the other hand, the CCRB will only have access to the room during agreed-upon hours and does not have the ability to audit the NYPD’s use of the room.

“As the secure room will be an NYPD facility, the Department will have access to it outside of business hours. However, the CCRB does not expect NYPD personnel will use the facility to work on CCRB-related matters without CCRB present,” Teicher wrote.

“The CCRB will not at this time be able to audit the logins at the secure facility,” he added. “If an issue is ever raised, the CCRB will make every effort to work with the Department to resolve it.”

The agreement does not go into effect until the secure room is built, after which other protocols will be established. The text of the agreement does not specify a timeline for that.

“We will continue to work with OMB and DCAS to secure the necessary funding for the facility, and hope to have it set up in the first half of 2020,” wrote a CCRB spokesperson in an email.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, Chris Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), wrote of the new MOU, “we are concerned about how long it will take to get the new system up and running and about how much time this agreement gives the NYPD to turn over videos. A police department as sophisticated as the NYPD should be able to deliver videos in a matter of hours, not weeks.”

The agreement was hashed out under the administration of former Police Commissioner James O’Neill over weeks or months in the lead up to its announcement in November, which was first reported by the Daily News. It will have to be implemented under his successor, Dermot Shea, who was sworn in at the beginning of December after serving as Chief of Detectives, among other roles at the NYPD.

“I am confident this agreement between the CCRB and the NYPD will be preserved under incoming Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. This compromise is a step toward significantly reducing the body-worn camera backlog, ensuring police accountability, and allowing the CCRB to carry out its essential public safety mission on behalf of all New Yorkers,” CCRB Chair Fred Davie wrote in an email.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

NYPD's New Agreement with Police Oversight Board Promises Better Access to Body Camera Footage Wed, 04 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' finance comm hearing

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

The NYPD’s body-worn camera policies are a “work in progress,” a police official said at a hearing of the New York City Council’s public safety committee on Monday, seeking to allay concerns expressed by Council members about the program that now includes more than 20,000 uniformed officers. At the hearing, Council members had questions and criticisms about transparency and accountability taking a back seat to surveillance and police authority, particularly with regard to the NYPD’s control over body camera footage.

The NYPD rolled out cameras to every uniformed patrol officer by March of this year and more recently completed equipping 4,000 specialized team officers with cameras as well. It’s a major potential step towards transparency and accountability for a department that has not had a reputation for either. But the implementation of the program has been accompanied by a slew of questions about the footage collected and when, and in what manner, it is released to the public, press, prosecutors, and external watchdogs.

The department only published its “operations order” on public release of footage last month, and that too without a public announcement (Gotham Gazette first reported the order’s existence after repeatedly checking in with the NYPD until a link was provided). The order shows how much sway over the footage the NYPD is retaining, providing several sources of criticism for Council members and other stakeholders.

The policy also makes no reference to releasing footage to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct and abuse of power complaints. CCRB requests for footage are often delayed, some for months at a time. Meanwhile, the department turns unedited footage of all arrests over to district attorney offices almost immediately.

“Basic transparency requires someone other than the NYPD to be the gatekeeper of this footage when a member of the public makes a complaint,” said Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, in his opening statement. “When an oversight agency is dependent on the discretion of the very agency it is overseeing, what you end up with is the wolf guarding the henhouse. We need to do better.”

Richards, a Queens Democrat, is also troubled by the amount of discretion built into the policy on public release, which allows the police commissioner to decide within 30 days to release footage of “critical incidents” when an individual may be killed or severely injured by a police officer, or other incidents of intense public interest.

“The policy reads as a series of vague considerations, not a standard for the commissioner to follow,” he said. “The result is that many people are rightly concerned that the department can decide to release footage only when it looks good for them, and that body worn cameras are in fact being used as another surveillance tool, rather than for the purpose they were intended: for accountability, transparency, and to encourage civil interactions between officers and members of the public.”

Richards’ worries were echoed by several Council members as they peppered NYPD Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Oleg Chernyavsky and Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo to clarify and improve the department’s body-worn camera policies.

“It's a work in progress,” Chernyavsky said. “We're always learning. I mean, the idea here is to be transparent, and to give the public this vital information with as little delay as possible. If there's ways to do it better, we're certainly open to that.”

Pontillo said body camera policies have been routinely adjusted since the first pilot program in 2015, and they continue to change. “We anticipate in the near future, we will revise the policy again. We’ll probably add a couple of more categories of events that police officers get involved in, like responding to disputes,” he said. “Department policies are always under review. No policy is ever written with the idea that it will exist in perpetuity, but rather, it's an evolution and this whole thing has been an evolution since early 2014 when we began the research.”

Chernyavsky detailed the department’s efforts to balance transparency with privacy as it faces a deluge of requests for footage. Since the launch of body cameras, the department has collected about 8 million videos, he said. On average, each video is about 8 minutes long and 130,000 new videos are uploaded to the department’s cloud video storage each week. These are then accessible to prosecutors automatically.

For the CCRB’s disciplinary investigations, however, the department edits and redacts videos as it deems necessary under state laws. This year, the CCRB has made about 3,700 requests, which generated almost 14,500 responsive videos, Chernyavsky said, up from 2,080 requests in 2018, which led to 6,134 responsive videos. Another 870 request for footage were made this year under the Freedom of Information Law, with roughly 3,000 videos provided in response.

He also emphasized the department’s internal quality control and random auditing process, and said the most recent 28-day audit showed 92% compliance by officers with guidelines in the NYPD Patrol Guide, which include when to turn the cameras on and off.

Another topic of discussion at the hearing was a bill proposed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that would place detailed reporting requirements for the NYPD’s body-camera program. Though Chernyavsky said the department was open to collaborating with the City Council to create some form of reporting mechanism, he said Williams’ bill as written was far too onerous.

“The bill would require us to report on data which could not be captured without a trained analyst watching and listening to every recording in its entirety, then conducting an investigation to gather additional data points,” he said in his testimony, noting that the department would need to hire and train about 800 new analysts and investigators to meet that need.

Richards pointed out, as Gotham Gazette has reported, that the CCRB experiences delays in receiving footage, which can be heavily edited, and sometimes has its requests denied outright. “Why do you have to be the gatekeeper? Can't you just give access to the CCRB so they can look for the footage they need to investigate their cases?” he asked.

But Chernyavsky argued that the CCRB does not have the same authority as district attorneys and so is subject to certain restrictions that stem from state laws on privacy. He did say the department is trying to reduce delays as far as possible. “We've been working collaboratively with [the CCRB] to streamline the process even further, and to reduce the turnaround times even more, and we're anticipating that will be able to do that, especially in the near future to hopefully almost eliminate any kind of delay and turnaround time,” he said.

That explanation wasn’t adequate for Council Member Rory Lancman, another Queens Democrat and a longtime critic of certain NYPD practices, who questioned why the operations order on public release did not include a time-bound mechanism for releasing footage to the CCRB. “It's very disturbing to me that this order lacks a clear mechanism for getting BWC footage to the CCRB in a timely manner,” he said.

He also pointed out, as did Council Member Brad Lander after him, that the operation order merely says the commissioner will decide within 30 days whether to release footage of a critical incident to the public. It does not seem to mandate the release, Lancman said. He also questioned whether the policy’s stated guidelines on releasing representative samples of footage would allow the NYPD to create a narrative of incidents that would protect its officers rather than reveal the truth.

Pontillo and Chernyavsky, however, sought to reassure him. “This procedure creates a presumption of release,” Pontillo said. Chernyavsky said representative samples are part of a common sense policy. “What we are striving to do is to give this type of sample, where possible to attach a more comprehensive video to it, when you have a situation where there is just so much video footage that it's not feasible to turn it around that quickly,” he said. “You may have a situation where we're putting out something of great public interest rather than simply being silent for an extended amount of time.”

Several Council members also pushed the police officials to commit to ensuring that body camera footage is released immediately or is at least allowed to be reviewed by the family members of individuals killed in police-involved shootings. They cited two recent examples: the fatal police shooting of Kawaski Trawick in the Bronx in April and the September incident where officers shot one of their own, Brian Mulkeen, and a civilian, Antonio Williams, in a hail of bullets. In both cases, neither Trawick’s nor Williams’ families have been allowed access to footage from officers on the scene. “I do think just families should have access sooner than everybody else,” Public Advocate Williams said. “That seems to make sense to me.”

But the operations order notes that families of those involved would be notified and shown footage only before it is publicly released, as has been the department’s practice. Families do not receive immediate access when they demand it. 

Civil rights and police reform advocates who spoke at the hearing in support of Williams’ bill expressed additional criticisms of the overall body-camera program. 

Jacqueline Caruana, senior trial attorney at the criminal defense practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, said the program is currently being used to the NYPD’s advantage rather than for transparency. “Any legislation that establishes reporting requirements for body-worn camera usage will likely be ineffectual if it does not also impose a consequence for failure to follow them, and if the department itself remains generally unwilling to penalize offices for misconduct,” she said.

Michael Sisitzky of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the NYPD’s total control over cameras and footage undermines the goals of the program. “If it becomes apparent that these cameras are primarily focused on surveillance and tool for prosecution, New York City must be open to reconsidering whether the substantial sums currently spent on this NYPD program could be better invested in our communities,” he said in written testimony.

Lenora Easter, team leader of the early defense team at the criminal defense practice of The Bronx Defenders, urged the Council to close a loophole that allows officers discretion to not turn on their cameras in exigent circumstances. She also pushed for increasing the “buffering period” on officer cameras – the two types of cameras currently used will save 30 seconds and 1 minute of footage prior to a camera being turned on. That extra buffer provides added context to an incident but recorded without audio.

Laura Hecht-Felella, legal fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said Williams’ bill should be passed alongside the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, a bill introduced by Council Member Vanessa Gibson to mandate the NYPD disclose information about the surveillance tools it uses. The NYPD has vehemently opposed that bill over the course of two Council sessions.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council to Examine Rollout of NYPD Body Camera Program cm cornegy richards press conference

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The NYPD’s body-worn camera program is meant to provide transparency and accountability about policing activity in the city, particularly in cases of high-profile incidents of police officers’ use of force against civilians. But more than seven months after body cameras were rolled out to every uniformed patrol officer, there are many questions about how the cameras are used and about the policies that determine the release of the footage to the public and independent watchdogs.

At a hearing on Monday, the New York City Council will examine the rollout of the program and ask some of those key questions, along with discussion of proposed legislation to require the NYPD to regularly publish data on the implementation of the body-worn camera program.  

The Council’s Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Council Member Donovan Richards, is expected to delve into two main issues: the long delays in the release of body camera footage to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an independent agency that monitors and investigates allegations of abuse of power and misconduct by police officers; and the NYPD’s recently-published policy on releasing footage to members of the public and the news media.

[Read: NYPD Publishes Long-Sought Body Camera Footage Policy]

Footage from body-worn cameras is crucial evidence in investigations by outside authorities into complaints against NYPD officers. Gotham Gazette recently reported that since March, when body-worn cameras were fully rolled out to 20,000 patrol officers, between 29 and 37% of the CCRB’s open investigations had pending requests for body camera footage, per monthly data from the Board. The delay for releasing footage also varies. The NYPD responded to 43% of requests within 30 days; 35% of requests were fulfilled within 30 and 60 days; in 13% of requests, there was no response for more than 90 days.

Even when footage is provided, it can be edited or censored. The NYPD says the delays can be attributed to the need to edit footage to ensure compliance with state privacy protection laws, but the CCRB has pointed out several other reasons that the department has cited to refuse to provide footage, while also pointing out that there have been many cases where the NYPD says body camera footage doesn’t exist, but it is later discovered that it does. [Read: New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing]

Meanwhile, prosecutors in district attorney offices across the city automatically receive unedited body camera footage from the department when it is uploaded after an arrest. [Read: Vast Difference in NYPD Provision of Body Camera Footage to District Attorneys Versus Police Watchdog]

“One of the things that I want to explore the most is the issue around CCRB and obviously prosecutors gaining access to the footage much faster,” said Richards, a Queens Democrat, in a phone interview.

“The Civilian Complaint Review Board plays a very important role, just as we saw in the [Eric] Garner case,” Richards added, citing the CCRB’s investigation into then-NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was recently terminated from the force, five years after he used a banned chokehold during an attempted arrest that led to Garner’s death on Staten Island. “And being that they are the agency that has oversight over the NYPD, they shouldn't have to wait 30 days. They should be able to have a system in place that gives them access right away,” he said.

The NYPD’s policy on public release has been criticized by a number of stakeholders and experts, first for including a 30-day timeline for footage of “critical incidents” and also for an explicit acknowledgement that the NYPD will exercise discretion in editing and omitting certain footage. The department’s recently (and quietly) released “operations order” around release of footage also makes no mention at all of the CCRB.

Richards said the 30-day policy is inadequate.

“One of the things we do also want to ensure is that the NYPD is not just doctoring certain parts of the video that they want the public to see,” he added. “We need to make sure that it's a full transparent process and that the public, who funds the NYPD, has the right to know what these interactions look like between the department and everyday people...which creates a higher standard, which then leads to more accountability and ensuring that there’s checks and balances.”

Besides the oversight aspect of Monday’s hearing, the Council will also discuss a bill proposed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that requires the NYPD to publish quarterly public reports on the use of body-worn cameras and an annual report on every incident that requires activation of a body camera.

The quarterly reports would include data on the number of officers with body-worn cameras, and the percentage of officers, disaggregated by borough and precinct; the percentage of total law enforcement activities where body-worn camera footage was recorded, disaggregated by category of law enforcement activity; the percentage of total use-of-force incidents where footage was recorded, disaggregated by use-of-force category; and the percentage of total police-civilian encounters that lead to investigations by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau where footage was recorded; disaggregated by category of alleged misconduct.

The annual report would be far more detailed, requiring data on every incident recorded on body-worn cameras in the previous year including the date, time, and location of the incident; the law enforcement activity that triggered the recording; whether officers on scene were equipped with cameras; whether footage was recorded and the reason if it was not; whether the camera failed to clearly record audio; whether the footage was visually compromised or obstructed in any way; whether an officer told an individual they were being recorded; whether an officer switched off their camera before the incident was concluded; whether someone requested the footage under the state’s Freedom of Information Law; whether a use-of-force incident occurred during the recording, and the category; whether a recording was used for an internal investigation by the department or for an external probe by the CCRB; and the race, gender and age of the individual subject to law enforcement activity that led to the recording.

[Read: New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing]

[Read: Vast Difference in NYPD Provision of Body Camera Footage to District Attorneys Versus Police Watchdog]

[Read: Oversight Board Stymied by NYPD Denial of Body Camera Footage Requests]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council to Examine Rollout of NYPD Body Camera Program Sun, 17 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Oversight Board Stymied by NYPD Denial of Body Camera Footage Requests police comm confer

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

Amid the ongoing conversation about the way the NYPD handles footage recorded by officer-worn body cameras, more details have surfaced about the reasons the department gives for delaying or denying requests made by misconduct investigators for key pieces of video.

Gotham Gazette recently reported that while prosecutors in district attorney offices get full body-worn camera footage directly from the arresting officer following an arrest, police watchdogs often experience significant delays in obtaining video from the NYPD, if the footage is handed over at all.

Over the course of many months running, roughly a third of Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) investigations have outstanding body camera footage requests. More than half of all footage requests made by the CCRB are pending for more than 30 days (some even longer), which CCRB officials say has contributed to a growing backlog that threatens to derail ongoing investigations.

The CCRB is a civilian agency with Board members appointed by the mayor -- some recommended by the police commissioner or City Council -- and jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute allegations of officer misconduct when the claims involve excessive force or abuse of authority, among others.

The police department’s body-worn camera program hit full implementation across the entire force earlier this year, but the NYPD just last month issued its first “operations order” that indicates how camera footage is reviewed and disseminated to the public or prosecutors. The CCRB is not mentioned in the official policy.

NYPD officials have said, for requests made by the public or the CCRB, the department must edit the footage in order to comply with privacy provisions within the state’s public disclosure laws. Tracking down the relevant footage from any police body cameras on the scene of an incident, and ensuring it is edited to prevent depicting legally protected information, can contribute to the delays, department officials say.

Yet in a July memo to the CCRB, recently obtained by Gotham Gazette, CCRB Director of Quality Assurance and Improvement Olas Carayannis describes additional reasons the NYPD has given to outright deny body camera footage requests. The conditions discussed in the memo may also illuminate causes for the consistent delays in releasing footage to the CCRB, which the NYPD says it is working on and the mayor’s office told Gotham Gazette it will review. There is a City Council oversight hearing on the body camera program set for Monday.

Earlier this fall, NYPD spokesperson Al Baker told Gotham Gazette body camera video could be edited to shield the identities of victims and survivors of sex crimes, which he says the state’s civil rights statute protect. He also said footage can be redacted or omitted to remove images of confidential medical treatment, protected under federal law, or “other prisoners in a cell whose arrest may be sealed.” At a CCRB board meeting in September, Board Chair Fred Davie said there are also cases where the NYPD has withheld footage because it captures the face of a minor.

“With all NYPD patrol officers now outfitted with body-worn cameras, the NYPD collaborates closely with the CCRB to provide footage as expeditiously as possible,” Baker wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette in November. In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced the completed rollout of 20,000 body cameras to rank-and-file officers.

“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,” Baker said.

The memo from Carayannis goes further, laying out other reasons the NYPD has given to CCRB investigators, some of which outline grounds for completely denying footage requests in addition to pointing to causes for delays.

Between February 2018 and July 2019, the NYPD has reserved the right to withhold body camera recordings when there is an ongoing investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau or another body, Carayannis noted. During that time period 41 cases were denied on that basis, six of which “were being investigated by the Force Investigations Division, which often investigates high-profile media cases involving force allegations that are also the CCRB’s jurisdiction,” the memo reads.

“Waiting for the Force Investigations Division to complete its investigation limits the CCRB’s ability to independently investigate these complaints,” Carayannis wrote. CCRB investigations must be completed within an 18-month statute of limitations.

The memo also states that in March 2018, the NYPD began refusing to provide the CCRB footage of incidents when they involved an arrest that was later sealed (a fact WNYC reported in July). “The NYPD considers the entire incident sealed in these instances, and thus all videos related to that arrest become unavailable to the CCRB,” the memo states.

It says, “The NYPD currently has a blanket policy of denying all BWC [body worn camera] requests that are in any way related to a sealed case,” pursuant to the state’s Criminal Procedure Law. In the memo Carayannis reports 81 CCRB requests that had been altogether denied because they were associated with a sealed arrest between March 2018 and July 2019.

Complaints can be made against officers for conduct that takes place during an arrest later sealed, and body camera footage could be essential in those investigations. Sealing records is meant to protect the reputation of an individual who may have had criminal charges dropped or ones that were very minor to begin with.

In April, the New York Supreme Court determined it was illegal for the police department to “us[e] any documents” connected with a sealed arrest, according to the memo. But Carayannis’s memo raises concerns that NYPD “members of service” (police officers) may continue to view body camera footage related to a sealed arrest, despite the ruling.

Carayannis wrote, “the CCRB is aware of multiple instances where the CCRB was denied access to video footage pursuant to [the Criminal Procedure Law], yet the [officer] was able to view the video prior to his/her CCRB interview.”

Video request denials because of a sealed arrest can compound the effect of other obstacles the CCRB says it faces in receiving and analyzing evidence from BWCs. “The backlog in BWC requests will cause the number of BWC videos unavailable to the CCRB to increase drastically, because the likelihood that an arrest is sealed rises with the length of time since an arrest,” the memo stated.

Another reason given by the NYPD to the CCRB for denying certain video requests is the presence of a minor in the sought-after recording. Baker has noted that the depiction of juveniles is a consideration in processing footage requests, writing in a November email, “Our policy for release is guided by State law and ensures that sensitive information involving juveniles or sex crime victims, among other things, is protected.”

Carayannis’ memo expands upon that description, explicitly citing it as a reason given, not only for potential delays in delivering footage, but for wholly refusing requests. Between March 2018 and July 2019, 82 video requests made by the CCRB were denied because of the presence of minors under the age of 18, which the police department said was required under the state’s Family Court Act, according to the memo.

“If you’re really interested in protecting young New Yorkers, if you’re really interested in improving relationships between the NYPD and those young people...then the best way to do that is by ensuring that we hold members of the police department in this city accountable,” CCRB Chair Davie said at the September board meeting.

“Ensuring the city’s police oversight agency has the tools it needs to investigate this misconduct is the best way to protect” young people captured in body camera video, he added.

Despite repeated attempts, NYPD representatives did not provide comment specifically for this story, particularly with regard to questions about denying video footage records requests because of ongoing IAB investigations, sealed arrests, or the presence of a minor.

[READ: New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing]

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Oversight Board Stymied by NYPD Denial of Body Camera Footage Requests Sat, 16 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing cm vanessa gibson

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The New York City Police Department recently issued the first protocols for the public release of footage from officers’ body-worn cameras, and with them the first explicit mention in departmental policy that the footage may be subject to editing and redaction prior to release.

The policy raises new and recurring questions on the controversial topics of who controls the video and how it is handled, some of which the NYPD has responded to with information about its internal footage-review unit.

On October 18, seven months after Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced the completed roll-out of the city’s body-worn camera (BWC) program to more than 20,000 uniformed officers, the department published an “operations order” outlining the parameters for reviewing and releasing video of so-called “critical incidents” -- interactions with the public where police force ends in death or serious injury​.​

Critical incidents can also include events that have captured “vast public attention, or concern,” the release of which “will help enforce the law, preserve peace, and/or maintain public order.”

It gives the police commissioner broad authority in determining whether footage should be made public and the extent to which it is censored or redacted in compliance with federal, state, and local law. In multiple instances the new policy makes reference to public safety and privacy concerns, some of which department officials say are protected by state law.

Through the new policy, the NYPD reserves the right to delay or completely forego releasing footage based on considerations like protecting confidential sources, the identity of victims and survivors of sex crimes and domestic violence, or the privacy, life, or safety of an individual -- among many others. In all instances the document leaves the discretion to edit or redact footage within the police department.

After review and possible editing, “the Department will release representative samples of the BWC video(s) depicting the critical incident, as well as, any salient events leading up to the event. Extraneous and/or redundant material may be omitted,” the order reads. “The footage will be redacted (e.g., faces of involved individuals will be blurred, etc.), as appropriate, prior to being released to the public.”

The policy says the NYPD will make a decision about when to release footage within 30 days of a critical incident, but makes no guarantees about the release.

In recent interviews with Gotham Gazette, police officials cited footage editing as one of the reasons for delaying the release of body-worn camera video to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which often requests the footage to assist in its investigations of alleged police misconduct.

Representatives of the CCRB, a civilian agency with jurisdiction over excessive force claims and other types of officer wrongdoing, say it relies on BWC video to substantiate misconduct allegations. Gotham Gazette recently reported that while roughly a third of CCRB investigations have BWC footage requests pending with the NYPD, the department releases unedited footage of arrests directly to prosecutors in district attorney offices almost immediately upon completing a tour.

Al Baker, an NYPD spokesperson, gave the examples of the state’s Civil Rights Law Section 50-b -- which he says requires the department to edit videos involving sex crimes -- and legal restrictions to publicly depicting confidential medical treatment, as reasons for the delay in responding to the CCRB.

“The CCRB disagrees with the NYPD’s interpretation of the law. We are working with the Department on a solution to these issues that satisfies all parties,” wrote Ethan Teicher, CCRB press secretary, in an email. The CCRB believes that unless there is “significant change” in the police department’s practices with respect to the agency’s video requests, the backog will continue to build and further impair misconduct investigations, according to a September tweet.

While listing the broad privacy and legal considerations the NYPD makes in determining whether a body camera video will be edited prior to release to the public, the new policy does not provide details about who makes the decisions to edit footage, what the full editing and release process looks like, and what ultimately gets redacted, omitted, or censored.

According to Baker of the NYPD, that is done by a centralized Body-Worn Camera Unit within the department’s Legal Bureau, housed at police headquarters in lower Manhattan. (Baker says the unit processes footage for both the CCRB and for public release. The public release policy makes no reference to the CCRB.) The BWC Unit is headed by James Conroy, Director of Litigation, Support and Transparency, a civilian member of the police department, and is made up of a combination of civilian and uniformed members, Baker said in a Wednesday phone interview.

Those details and the new operations order around public release of footage raise questions about potential conflicts of interest in editing body camera footage, including for officers under investigation for misconduct.

Asked whether the procedure to process video requests by the public, media, or CCRB involves the officer who wore the camera or others from the officer’s precinct, Baker told Gotham Gazette, “the answer to that is no. The officers who own the footage are not the people editing it. It’s edited in the centralized unit or it’s redacted in the centralized unit.”

An original copy of the footage is kept saved in an NYPD database for one year, according to the department’s patrol guide, regardless of any editing to fulfill a public or CCRB request. The new public release policy states, “Unedited footage of a critical incident will be maintained, and released, to an appropriate investigating authority upon request.”

In January 2018, NY1 reported receiving more than 300 BWC videos through a Freedom of Information Law request from the city’s pilot program recorded during 2014 and 2015, which were “heavily redacted, blacking out interactions between the public and police.” 

Baker did not respond to questions about whether there is a process of approval or feedback from people outside the BWC Unit, like the police commissioner or another top department official, before video is released to the public or to the CCRB.

He also did not immediately provide more information on the BWC Unit, like the size of its staff, the breakdown of its civilian and uniformed membership, and how many lawyers have been assigned to process the footage. It remains unclear whether a legal expert is assigned to each video request where footage must be censored or redacted pursuant to the law, and if there are written guidelines for that type of editing.

“The NYPD has assigned additional personnel to the body-worn camera unit to address the backlog of requests,” Baker wrote in an October email, referring to both CCRB requests and ones made by members of the public under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

A memo from Olas Carayannis, CCRB Director of Quality Assurance, to the CCRB board in July stated, “While the Department indicated that it allocated four additional people to review BWC requests, the CCRB is not confident that this will address the backlog in a way that will allow the Agency to complete its investigations in a timely manner.”

The CCRB solicits evidence from the NYPD exclusively through the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, according to the department’s patrol guide. How the BWC Unit works with Internal Affairs does not appear to be described in any NYPD protocols.

“As of June 26, 2019, the CCRB had 788 unfulfilled requests for BWC footage from IAB, some of which had been made months earlier,” wrote Carayannis.

On Monday, the City Council Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Queens Democrat Donovan Richards, will hold an oversight hearing to examine the body camera program after its first months of full implementation. Along with providing new information about the CCRB backlog and the NYPD footage-editing process, the hearing may illuminate other questions like how officers are adapting to turning on cameras during interactions with the public, as required by departmental policy, and what the department is doing to ensure officer compliance with protocols related to the new technology.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing Thu, 14 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
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

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Vast Difference in NYPD Provision of Body Camera Footage to District Attorneys Versus Police Watchdog Mon, 11 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD Publishes Long-Sought Body Camera Footage Policy com james body

Mayor de Blasio with an NYPD body camera (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The New York Police Department quietly issued its long-sought policy on the public release of body-worn camera footage earlier this month, detailing how the department must respond to requests for footage from the public and the various exemptions that determine its release.

The policy was published to the NYPD website on October 18, one day after Gotham Gazette reported on the long delay in formulating the policy and seven months after the department finished its yearslong rollout of body-worn cameras to all uniformed patrol officers on the force. No public notice appears to have gone out from the NYPD, but a link to the policy was provided to Gotham Gazette upon follow-up inquiry on Thursday -- an NYPD spokesperson had previously said the policy would be out by the end of the month.

The policy and release of video are meant to create transparency into police interactions with members of the public, including but not limited to high-profile and controversial events – including fatal shootings – which the department refers to as “critical incidents.” It outlines how the department will provide access to members of the public, news media, and investigating authorities.

While there have been calls for a public policy for years, the issuance of one by the department will not fully quell concerns from reformers, including those who believe the NYPD should not be in charge of the footage in the first place. Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly called the institution of body cameras a major step forward in NYPD transparency and accountability and argued it is leading to better policing and police-community relationships.

“The Department’s policy regarding the public release of Body-Worn Camera (BWC) footage of a critical incident enhances Departmental transparency, while balancing privacy concerns and the need to comply with federal, state and local public disclosure laws,” the two-page "operations order" policy reads.

The policy details the NYPD’s obligations for turning over footage to federal and state prosecutors investigating incidents of use of force. Within 24 hours of being informed that an investigation is underway, the department must turn over footage, it has decided. For release to the public, the policy states that the department “will decide” within 30 days, “provided that the force investigation review is completed.”

It does allow prosecutors to request, in writing, an additional 30-day delay in releasing footage to the public, which would be decided by the police commissioner. The department will also release samples of the incident and relevant footage of events that lead up to an incident, it states, likely leading to further questions about selected samples and how they may or may not provide an accurate or full picture of an incident.

Before releasing any footage, the department will take into account several factors, the policy says. For instance, whether the footage captured the inside of a home where individuals can expect privacy, any intimate images, images of injuries or dead bodies, location of a domestic violence program, or images that show an individual or officer receiving medical attention.

Bearing in mind privacy concerns, the policy states that individuals’ faces will be blurred and release may be delayed or portions of the footage may be edited or withheld to comply with state, federal, or city laws, to protect witnesses and informants, to protect a person’s right to a fair trial, to protect the identity of sex crime victims, domestic violence survivors and juveniles, to protect the privacy, life or safety of a person or to avoid undue trauma from explicit or graphic content.

The policy does note that unredacted footage may be shared for full transparency to the news media after taking those factors into consideration.

It defines a “critical incident” as one that involves use of force by officers that results in death or serious physical injury to another person or an incident where the police commissioner decides that releasing the footage will “address vast public attention, or concern, or will help enforce the law, preserve peace, and/or maintain public order.”

Recent incidents of alleged police misconduct and fatal shootings by officers have reignited concerns about how the NYPD handles and releases body-worn camera footage. Just this past weekend, two separate incidents involving policing the subway system were caught on cellphone cameras by bystanders and raised questions about when the public might see officers’ body camera footage.

In one, officers aggressively arrested a young man they believed possessed a gun. Though the man was not resisting and was seated in a subway car with his hands up, multiple officers rushed in and forcefully pulled him to the ground before arresting him. The second incident involved what officers said they stepped in to separate two groups of teenagers fighting on a subway platform. In video of that case, one officer can be seen punching teenagers unprovoked. He has been placed on modified duty pending an investigation of the incident, according to city officials.

Elected officials and police reform advocates have been in an uproar and have called for the speedy release of any footage that the officers involved may have captured on their body-worn cameras.

Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently ordered the addition of 500 new MTA police officers to reduce fare evasion, crack down on homelessness in the subways, and protect transit officers, but those officers are not required to be fitted with body-worn cameras, unlike their counterparts in the NYPD. As some have questioned the need for the officers, State Senator Jessica Ramos announced plans to introduce legislation to require MTA officers to wear body cameras.

Kesi Foster, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups, said the new NYPD footage release policy is “a sham, designed to protect abusive officers and the reputation of the NYPD instead of the public.”

“The purpose of the policy is to be able to control the narrative related to interactions between residents and officers, not to deter or prevent abusive policing,” he said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “While other municipalities release body camera footage within days of an incident, the NYPD plans to drag out the timeline and continue to cement police secrecy and impunity as NYC's defacto policy. The new policy makes clear that the NYPD will continue to unilaterally decide what selective footage will be released, how it will be edited and when it will be released.”

Foster cited the “selectively edited photos and footage” released by the NYPD after officers shot and killed Brooklyn resident Saheed Vassell last year. The footage, from security cameras, shows Vassell, who suffered from mental illness, holding a metal pipe and pointing it at people on the street. But it does not clearly show the officers shooting Vassell, which they did within seconds of arriving at the scene. None of those officers were equipped with body cameras, according to the NYPD. Foster said that case “is a perfect preview of how the department will use release of edited footage and photos to justify unjustifiable police action and criminalize those killed and brutalized by police.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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NYPD Publishes Long-Sought Body Camera Footage Policy Thu, 31 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
NYPD Pledges Release of Body Camera Footage Policy This Month mayor hosts press conf cam

De Blasio with a body camera (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

The New York City police department is set to finally publish its formal policy regarding the release of body-worn camera footage, nearly seven months after every uniformed patrol officer was equipped with a body camera. While the signature reform has been touted by Mayor Bill de Blasio as a means to improve policing and to provide transparency and accountability to the public, there have been no clear guidelines on how the department determines when to release footage to the public and the press.

Indication of the impending announcement, given to Gotham Gazette by an NYPD spokesperson, comes amid questions about the death of NYPD Officer Brian Mulkeen in a ‘friendly fire’ incident last month – including when the city will make public the body-camera footage of officers involved in the shooting, which apparently occurred as Mulkeen wrestled with a suspect who was also killed by responding officers.

In March, the NYPD completed the roll out of body-worn cameras to every uniformed officer on patrol, roughly 20,000 in total, and began assigning another 4,000 to officers in specialized units. In the Mulkeen incident, all of the officers were equipped with cameras and had them activated, except for Mulkeen, according to news reports. While there are detailed guidelines on how officers must use those cameras, there is no formal policy on how footage is released to the public or the press.

NYPD spokesperson Devora Kaye told Gotham Gazette that policy will be posted to the department’s website by the end of the month. Kaye did not provide any further details about what the policy will include or who was consulted on creating it.

The NYPD first began a pilot program to equip a limited number of officers with body-worn cameras in April 2017, after the settlement of a lawsuit over the department’s policing tactics, specifically the unconstitutional manner in which officers employed street stops known as stop-and-frisk. The camera program was launched under the supervision of a court-appointed special monitor, Peter Zimroth, who has continued to assess its efficacy. In July 2018, a federal judge ordered the police department to begin recording all encounters, not just the more serious ones that officers had been recording thus far.

The body-worn camera program was to be fully implemented by the end of 2019 but was expedited last year by de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill. But, while the two have repeatedly said they support greater transparency in how the police operate, critics say they have been hesitant to act unless pushed to do so or become more secretive, as has been the case with the city’s narrowed interpretation of a state law related to the public release of officer personnel records.

As early as December 2014, Mayor de Blasio emphasized the need to balance privacy and legal concerns as the city sought to implement a pilot body camera program. “I think part of this is seeing how it works in practice and helping us refine that balance...We're dealing with a lot of unexplored territory in this issue that the public...the media, and we in the police profession, and the courts for that matter, don't fully understand. We're going to all learn together,” he said, quickly noting that an early issue that emerged was the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

In April 2017, the mayor noted that the program continued to be a “work in progress” for the police department. “It will build out over time. We are reserving the right to make adjustments in the policy as we go along,” he said.

At a January 2018 news conference, when the city announced the accelerated implementation of the body camera program, police officials were reluctant to commit to time-bound policies for release of footage or a policy around doing so, emphasizing again that they believed it was too early to make such decisions. “I think what we are trying to do is gather the experience to inform that policy,” said Assistant Deputy Commissioner Nancy Hoppock.

In the wake of several high-profile officer-involved shootings, police reform advocates and the families of individuals killed by officers have repeatedly raised alarms about the department’s culture of secrecy and the apparent absence of a universal standard for releasing body-worn camera footage, and no public indication as to when such a policy would be forthcoming.

Such concerns were again raised last month, after Officer Mulkeen and a civilian, Antonio Williams, were killed in the Bronx in an attempted arrest gone wrong. Mulkeen had chased Williams after a street stop, and when the two struggled as the officer tried to restrain him, several fellow officers showed up and opened fire, killing them both.

At an October 8 news conference on the latest crime statistics, Commissioner O’Neill said the department would release some footage of the incident. “We’re in discussions, this is an active investigation with the Bronx DA’s office,” he said, adding that the department was “going to end up releasing some of it but certainly not to the point where right before Detective Mulkeen gets shot, just to what led up to it.” (Mulkeen was posthumously promoted to Detective by the NYPD.)

The previous week, the mayor defended his administration’s “consistent” approach in terms of working with district attorneys first and noted the complexities of releasing body camera footage.

“[T]his is what we said from the beginning about body cameras, that we have to, in each instance, make sure that the release is appropriate and that begins with dealing with the District Attorney’s Office,” he said, in his weekly appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall on September 30. “And as you see, the release of footage has happened consistently in the days after an incident. But there considerations that have to be accounted for and then we proceed to release the footage.”

But the police department has not always been forthcoming or consistent, as the mayor claims. In a June ruling in a lawsuit brought by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a judge ordered the department to release all relevant footage from the 2017 shooting death of an unarmed, mentally ill Bronx resident at the hands of police. An earlier collection of footage the department had made public excluded certain officers who were at the scene.

The NYPD had initially sought to prevent releasing the body-camera footage under the protection of Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, which the department and city lawyers have argued prohibits officers’ personnel records from public disclosure. But the department later reversed its position, indicating it would release the footage. That did not, however, stop the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the largest police officers union, from filing a lawsuit on those grounds. The suit was struck down by a state appeals court in February this year.

Advocates continue to deride the fact that the NYPD itself is creating the policies around disclosure. Kesi Foster, an organizer with Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups, said the department’s current policies are “substandard and are designed to protect abusive officers instead of the public.”

“We have no faith that the NYPD's expected revision of their policies will change this since body cameras can never be a tool for transparency or accountability while the NYPD owns the footage, controls release of footage and unilaterally dictates related policy,” Foster said in a statement. “Despite promises from elected officials that body cameras will create stronger accountability or reform policing, it’s clear in NYC and across the country they are another tool for officials to protect police departments from transparency and control the narrative around interactions between residents and police officers.”

There is broad agreement that the department needs to have a detailed formal policy on handling the release of footage to the public and the news media. Before the initial launch of the body-worn camera program, the NYPD in 2016 conducted a survey of police officers and the public, and commissioned a subsequent report on the public feedback received by the New York University School of Law’s Policing Project.

“A majority of respondents (57%) either agreed or strongly agreed that the NYPD should be required to show footage of a person’s interaction with an officer to a news or advocacy organization upon request, noting that recordings were public documents, and that making footage available would promote transparency and accountability,” the report noted. Those who believed footage should not be released pointed to privacy concerns or the effect it could have on police investigations.

Groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and more than a dozen media organizations urged the department to formulate a written policy and to ensure that exemptions to the city’s Freedom of Information Law are only applied narrowly for maximum access. Additionally, the report noted, 51% of respondents said the police department should release footage of high-profile incidents – including a serious use of force or custodial death – “as soon as possible” while 25% said footage should be released after an internal department investigation.

Even a report from the Police Executive Research Forum, published in 2014 and commissioned by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, notes that “Agencies should have clear and consistent protocols for releasing recorded data externally to the public and the news media.” The report is linked on the NYPD’s website.

The NYPD patrol guide minimally addresses these issues. Its eight-page body-worn camera policy details when and how officers should use their cameras, protocols for activating them, and circumstances when doing so would adversely affect their duties. It specifies which activities, individuals, and locations officers may not record – protests and other forms of political activity, victims of sex crimes, the inside of a medical facility, to name a few. And it outlines how the footage must be stored, maintained, and reviewed.

But it only briefly refers to how the footage can be made accessible to outside parties, including oversight and investigation agencies and the public. For instance, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau handles requests for footage from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which monitors and probes abuse of power and misconduct by officers. Those requests are not always handled in a timely manner, however.

For instance, in December 2018, about 8% of CCRB investigations had pending requests for body-worn camera footage (the number was never higher than 12% for any month last year). In September of this year, however, that number was at 30%, after hitting a high of 37% in June, according to the CCRB’s latest monthly statistical reports.

“Oversight agency access to body-worn camera footage has the potential to revolutionize civilian oversight of police across the country,” said Ethan Teicher, a CCRB spokesperson, in an email. “Currently, the CCRB requests body-worn camera footage from the NYPD in order to use it in agency investigations, and does so because this evidence is crucial to the CCRB’s oversight function.”

The patrol guide explicitly provides instructions to refuse access to body camera footage when initially requested. “Requests by a witness or victim to view a BWC recording must be declined and referred to the appropriate prosecutor handling the case. Requests by civilians to view a BWC recording that is not related to a criminal case must be declined and referred to the Legal Bureau’s Document Production Unit,” it reads.

City Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the Council’s public safety committee, is hoping the upcoming policy will provide greater transparency and access to body camera footage.

“In a perfect world, they would be much more transparent – which they are not as of now – in terms of releasing body camera footage immediately after events, as fast and expedient as possible,” he said in a brief interview at City Hall. He cited the recent police-involved shooting in Fort Worth, Texas, where an officer fatally shot a woman inside her own home. The shooting occurred on Saturday and the body camera footage was released quickly after, forcing the officer’s resignation within two days of the shooting. (He was charged with murder just hours later.)

Richards said he wants to see a policy that details time-bound releases of footage. “Things are always going to be under investigation and it needs to be a policy that enables us to get access to body camera footage much faster. So we're going to look for timelines. That's what I'm most interested in seeing,” he said. He is also pushing for an oversight hearing in November on the issue of body camera footage where the new policy would likely be up for discussion. 

Richards did not commit to advancing legislation mandating timeframes should the policy not include any. “We will always use the power of the committee to push the NYPD to be more transparent and more accountable to the public. And we will use the full weight of our committee to do that,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated. 

NYPD Pledges Release of Body Camera Footage Policy This Month Wed, 16 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000