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July 9, 2018

Appeals Court Extends Its Ban on Releasing Body-Camera Video


A state appeals court July 3 ordered that the NYPD may not release footage from officers’ body cameras until the court decides the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association’s lawsuit to block such video from being made public.

Associate Justice Rosalyn Richter of the Appellate Division’s First Department granted the union’s request for a temporary injunction in May until all five justices could consider it. The court is scheduled to hear arguments in November.

‘Officers’ Rights and Safety’

“We are grateful that the appellate panel recognized that police officers’ rights and safety need to remain protected while it weighs the important issues raised in our suit,” said PBA President Patrick J. Lynch. “The NYPD’s illegal and arbitrary release of body-worn camera footage should be unacceptable to anybody who is interested in privacy, transparency or even basic fairness. We look forward to making that case when our full appeal is heard.”

The union suit contended that release of body-camera video violated Section 50-a of the State Civil-Rights Law, which says a police department may not release records that could impact on an officer’s continued employment unless a judge orders it or the officer agrees.

The law was passed in 1976 and later amended to include other categories of workers, including correction officers. But the NYPD has been enforcing it for only two years, keeping secret disciplinary decisions that used to be made public routinely.

Civil-rights groups argued that this violated Mayor de Blasio’s pledge of increased transparency in government. He responded that he has asked the State Legislature to change the law but that the city must follow it until that happens.

A challenge to the law filed after Eric Garner’s death following his arrest on Staten Island for allegedly selling loose cigarettes is before the state Court of Appeals.

Release Called Arbitrary

The PBA also argued that the NYPD was arbitrary about the cases in which it released footage. The department has conceded that Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill decides on his own when to make the videos public. It has released videos in three cases.

The PBA filed its suit in January and appealed after State Supreme Court Justice Shlomo Hagler ruled against it. He found that Section 50-a did not allow third parties such as the union to intervene in disputes over what should be released.

“I do respectfully request that the Legislature in its infinite wisdom go back and review,” said Justice Hagler, apparently joining civil-liberties advocates, the state Committee on Open Government, Mr. de Blasio and others who believe the law should be modified or revoked.

The city Department of Law said that by extending the injunction the court has made clear that  it wants a “full opportunity to consider the issues.”

‘Not Covered by 50-a’

When Justice Richter first issued the injunction, Law Department spokesman Nicholas Paolucci said, “The whole idea behind the [body-camera] program is to ensure transparency and accountability for the public.” He said the city believes such footage “is a factual record of an incident, not a personnel record protected by 50-a.”

The NYPD began distributing body cameras to officers in April of last year and announced that all patrol officers would have them by the end of December.