Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in New York City, said the Police Department was violating state law by releasing footage from officers’ body cameras. Credit Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
When a New York City police officer shoots a civilian, should the public see video of the shooting captured on police body cameras? Or should that footage be shielded the same way that performance evaluations and disciplinary actions are?
The issue is at the heart of a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan by the city’s largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. As the city moves ahead with its plan to equip all patrol officers with body cameras by the end of 2019, the union, which represents nearly two-thirds of the city’s 36,000 officers, is seeking to stop the Police Department from releasing the resulting footage without a court order.
The Police Department considers releasing body camera video of “critical incidents,” like police shootings, on a case-by-case basis. The police commissioner makes the final decision after consulting with the district attorney in the borough where the shooting took place.
So far, the Police Department, under Commissioner James P. O’Neill, has released edited footage of three police shootings, including two that were fatal. But in the lawsuit, union lawyers argue that the videos — raw or edited — are personnel records shielded from public disclosure by Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, a statute that also protects officers’ performance evaluations and disciplinary records.
Patrick J. Lynch, the union president, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit that the releases were arbitrary and illegal.
“This footage has serious implications not only for the safety and due process rights of police officers, but for the privacy and rights of members of the public, as well,” he said. He accused Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Police Department of showing "reckless disregard” for those concerns and for state law.
The issue of what the public is permitted to see runs through the national debate over body cameras, as police departments, officers’ unions, lawmakers and watchdog organizations wrestle over what makes for the best policy.
The 50-a statute was intended to protect officers from exploitation and abuse. The city’s interpretation has expanded under Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat elected on promises of police reform, and the state’s highest court has affirmed the broader interpretation.
The Police Department has cited the 50-a statute as the reason for refusing to turn over body camera video to journalists who have requested it under the state Freedom of Information Law. But in statements confirming that the city was reviewing the lawsuit, officials stood by the decision to release some videos to the public.
“The mayor and the police commissioner have spoken to the need for increasing transparency into the way our city is policed,” Austin Finan, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said. “The release of body camera footage, when possible, is an important extension of that commitment.”
Robert J. Freeman, the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, who has called for the 50-a statute to be amended or repealed, said the lawsuit was an attempt by the union to further shield police officers from public accountability.
“You have this myth that the disclosure of information relating to the performance of the duties of a public employee in some way relates to that person’s personal privacy,” he said. “Not so. Not so. The record that indicates my salary is about me, but it’s not personal. It’s about me as a public employee.”
The police union, like others in Boston and Seattle, has resisted body cameras for its officers. Officials considered taking legal action against the city during contract negotiations last year until the city agreed to give a raise for officers who would be required to wear them.
While the police union would rather not see the videos released at all, prosecutors prefer that decision to be made after they have completed investigations and decided if criminal charges are warranted. And police-reform advocates have pushed for a standardized process that would allow more videos to be made public.
Darius Charney, the lead lawyer in a 2008 lawsuit that challenged the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics and led to a court-ordered body camera pilot, said the videos should be considered official reports, no different from what officers file each time they conduct a stop, arrest or other enforcement action.
Richard M. Aborn, the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a criminal justice policy nonprofit, said that whether the statute applies to body camera video may depend on whether the Police Department plans to use it to evaluate officers’ performances or make disciplinary decisions.
“What is crystal clear is the right of the public to see these videos and hear reports from the government about what happened in these shootings is paramount, and the courts have got to find a way to expeditiously resolve any dispute and allow the dissemination of this information,” he said. “So to me, this is about speed.”
Getting video released quickly, or explaining why it is being withheld, is crucial to quelling public skepticism, he said.
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.