September 9, 2014

Police Unions: Unanswered Questions In NYPD’s Plan to Use Body Cameras

Bratton to Equip 60 in Active Precincts

The Chief-Leader/Pat Arnow
POINT, CLICK AND DON’T SHOOT?: NYPD Sgts. Joseph Freer and Andrea Cruz display the tiny cameras—one attached to Mr. Freer’s eyeglass frames, the other to Ms. Cruz’s tie— that will be donned by 60 cops this fall to film police interactions with citizens. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the cameras will have a beneficial effect and show that more often than not, officers are giving accurate accounts in ‘he said/she said’ disputes, but police-union leaders have reservations.


The NYPD will institute a pilot program equipping 60 patrol officers with body cameras this fall, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton announced Sept. 4.

Experimenting with the cameras, which are attached to an officer’s clothing or eyeglasses, was ordered by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who ruled a year ago that the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program was unconstitutional in part because it was targeting people on the basis of race or ethnicity rather than because they appeared to be involved in criminal activity.

Body cameras were one of several modifications she ordered affecting training, supervision, reporting and discipline as they pertained to stops. Her order was put on hold after then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg appealed her decision and remains that way as the de Blasio administration moves to drop the proceeding.

‘Too Important to Wait’

Mr. Bratton said at a Police Headquarters press conference that the department was moving ahead without waiting for a Judge or the Federal monitor she appointed because “this issue is too important to wait for the conclusion of court action.”

He said body cameras, which are in use by hundreds of departments nationwide, are the next technological wave of policing. He compared them to portable two-way radios, which were just coming into vogue when he was a rookie in Boston 40 years ago. Officers then resisted the new radios, saying they were too heavy to carry, but Mr. Bratton said that now it’s unthinkable to send an officer on patrol without one.

NYPD officers went to Los Angeles, which has 100 officers experimenting with body cameras, to study their pilot program, he said. “LAPD officers found that when the public was aware the officers were recording, it had the effect of de-escalating an incident,” he said.

Clears Up Disputes

The cameras will also help the department determine the truth about citizen complaints of wrongdoing by officers, he said, adding that “The cameras is a significant enhancement to the ‘he said-she said’ scenario.”

The NYPD identified two cameras for the pilot program, but Mr. Bratton said the department was still working out guidelines for their use. Both cameras need to be turned on by the officers wearing them when the situation warrants. Some officers had feared cameras that could not be turned off would record them in the bathroom, while eating or during arguments with supervisors.

Mr. Bratton said he had briefed the police unions on the program the morning of his press conference, but two of them, the Patrolmen’s and Sergeants’ Benevolent Associations, were bothered by the lack of specifics on how they would be used.

“Police officers have nothing to hide, but there are many unanswered questions as to how this will work practically,” PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “We await the answers.”

He said the body cameras were a factor in efforts by police unions to intervene in the city’s appeal of Judge Scheindlin’s decision. The unions hope that their intervention will keep the appeal alive despite Mayor de Blasio’s effort to end it. Judge Analisa Torres, who replaced Judge Scheindlin on the case, rejected their attempt to intervene, but the unions have taken the case to the Court of Appeals.

A One-Way Street?

Edward D. Mullins, president of the SBA, agreed in an interview that many questions remained. He raised tactical issues, including, “Do I turn the camera on or reach for my gun? What happens if I’m involved in something and don’t turn the camera on?”

He said that some officers liked the cameras because they can conclusively show that a citizen complaint is false. “How serious will we be in prosecuting people who make allegations that are disproved by the video?” he asked. He anticipated pushback from the Police Department, which he said would argue that vigorous prosecution would deter people from making legitimate complaints.

The cameras will be used in the precincts that led each borough in stop-and-frisks during 2012: the 23rd in Manhattan, the 40th in The Bronx, the 75th in Brooklyn, the 103rd in Queens and the 120th in Staten Island, Mr. Bratton said. This plan was laid out in Judge Scheindlin’s order. Housing Bureau Police Service Area 2, which includes Brooklyn’s 73rd Precinct, will also be part of the program, Mr. Bratton said.

The officers participating will be volunteers, he said, adding that cops facing investigation over an incident recorded by a body camera would be allowed to view the video before being interviewed.

The initial $60,000 cost of acquiring the cameras will be covered by the Police Foundation.

‘A Complex Initiative’

“This is an extraordinarily complex initiative,” Mr. Bratton said. “The storage issue is phenomenal...Archiving is extraordinarily expensive.” He was referring to storing the images recorded by the cameras, either in city-owned computers or in the Internet “cloud.” Storing images from just one camera in the cloud could cost hundreds of dollars a year, he said, and once cameras are distributed to all 15,000 or 20,000 patrol officers the bill could come to $10 million a year.

One of the cameras selected for the pilot program is the Taser ANON flex and the other is the Vievu LG3. The Taser is a small camera attached by cord to a battery pack on the officer’s belt. The camera itself can be attached to the uniform, behind the ear or on a pair of glasses. The Vievu, a little smaller than a playing card but larger than the Taser camera, is a one-piece unit attached to the officer’s chest.

Mr. Bratton said civil-liberties groups were “all over the map” in terms of their reaction to the program.

NYCLU’s Caveat

“Body cameras ought to be a win-win for police and the communities they serve as long as their use is limited to police actions and addressing complaints or abuse or wrongdoing,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “But we also have concerns about mission creep and privacy. The NYPD has a long history of engaging in surveillance of innocent New Yorkers, and body cameras can’t become yet another tool for massive police surveillance.”

Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which was a plaintiff in the class-action suit that led to Judge Scheindlin’s ruling, was more critical.

“This kind of unilateral decision on the part of the NYPD follows the nontransparent, go-it-alone approach to police reform we saw with the prior NYPD and mayoral administration,” he said in a statement. “The pilot project ordered by the court envisioned a collaborative process in which the city, plaintiffs and court monitor work together to develop the guidelines and procedures for how the cameras and the footage recorded on them would be used and stored. But it now appears that the city has made all of these important decisions implicating police-officer and civilian safety and privacy entirely on its own, which is troubling for those of us who care about building trust and respect between the NYPD and the communities they police.”