Long after the rest of the policing world accepted the premise that body cams weren’t going away, and might actually help police when they were in the right, New York Police Department persisted in its fight against them. It’s not just that it’s as big as a medium-sized country’s army, but that they were scared to death of what it would show about the job. With good reason. Stop and frisk, anyone?
So then-Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered a pilot program of 1000 body cams. That was in 2013, before Bill de Blasio was elected mayor so he (she, xe, they, it?) could turn NYC into a progressive mecca, and before BdB got his butt kicked by the police union. Almost four years later, New York City is finally discovering what police across the country have known for years, that body cams exist. Right on top of things, guys.
But like all good bureaucracies, NYPD has to have rules and regs, and they take time to establish since no excellent bureaucracy isn’t required to reinvent the wheel as if everybody hadn’t been using body cams already. And the rules they created are, as one might guess, peculiar to the New York experience.
The first “big” question is when will cops be required to turn their body cams on, since having them doesn’t actually serve much of a purpose if they’re turned off.
Notice anything peculiar? Like the public wants them on a lot, and the cops, not so much? But this belies the problem: if body cams must be on for “use of force,” will cops call a “time out” when a situation develops where they decide to tune up a guy who isn’t sufficiently compliant so he can flip the switch? Sure. Who doesn’t honor the sacred “time out”?
But then, the “it depends” on witness interviews is somewhat disconcerting. After all, why record witness interviews, since they might say something inconsistent with the cop’s recollection or their testimony in court? That could be unpleasant.
And then there’s the question of how long body cam footage should be retained. They settled on one year, based upon the privacy concerns of advocacy groups, except for “tagged” videos.
Based on this feedback, we plan to revert to a one-year default retention period. The proposed procedure directs officers to “categorize” or “tag” recordings so that the recordings will be preserved and retrievable for future use. Officers will identify recordings related to arrests so that the recordings will be available for the prosecution of those cases.
A fair compromise? In a city where trial doesn’t happen for years, this means video is long gone unless the cops “tag” it. And if they somehow neglect to tag video that doesn’t make them look like the “Finest,” tough nuggies. Not that the NYPD can’t be trusted to identify all exculpatory video up front and retain it for when the defense finally learns, in the middle of a witness’ testimony, that it exists. Unless they didn’t video the witness interview, because “it depends.”
And what about the release of video? Surely we can all agree that sunlight is the best disinfectant? Except in New York City.
So the solution is to require the media to file a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain video, meaning that at the absolute best, it will take forever, and at worst, they will getting the same response that NYPD has historically given to all FOIL requests: Make us.
But certainly the defendant is entitled to the video, right?
There is an important exception with respect to release of body-worn camera footage: if a person is arrested and has a pending criminal case, and seeks body camera footage related to his or her arrest, he or she may not come to the NYPD to circumvent the standard discovery process between the prosecution and the defense. Discovery is governed by New York State Criminal Procedure Law. Criminal defendants are entitled to these recordings under the law, but such requests are handled by prosecutors in accordance with existing criminal discovery practices and procedures.
Discovery? That same criminal procedure process that has been the target of reform for decades because it’s nearly useless? And what of videos where the defendant isn’t arrested?
But if someone is, for example, stopped and frisked but not arrested, and thereafter seeks to obtain a copy of the body-worn camera recording of the encounter, he or she may do so by filing a first-party Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. If the release of the recording is not otherwise precluded by law, the individual will receive a copy of the recording.
Like the media, which has learned the hard way that all those laws, enacted with great fanfare, don’t actually work, the kid thrown against the wall gets the pleasure of completing a FOIL request, waiting until the NYPD feels good and ready to respond (yes, there are time limits, but no mechanism to compel the NYPD to comply with them short of suing them), get the delightful response of either “No, kiss my ass” or “please deposit $24,987 to cover the costs of your request before we decide whether to hand it over.” And then, it’s off to court for an order compelling disclosure, and no, there are no freebie lawyers to make it happen seven years later.
So the good news is that New York City will enter the 21st Century and begin a program of 1000 body cams. The bad news is that the only people who will benefit are the cops, who will be given the opportunity to watch the video before deciding what story to tell when they explain why they were so afraid for their life they just had to kill the mutt. And he had a criminal record anyway, so it’s not like he deserved to live.
Body cams. They’ll fix everything. Thank the lord we have a progressive mayor to make sure they did it right.