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January 12, 2018

Editorial: Body-Camera Complications

By Richard Steier

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association lawsuit contesting the manner in which the NYPD is releasing body-camera footage throws a spotlight on several difficult questions.

The most-basic one concerns the union’s claim that such footage constitutes a personnel record for the officers involved, and as such should be barred from public airing by Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law. City attorneys disagree, and their case is buttressed by the opinion of Arnie Kriss, a former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Trials who is also a former prosecutor.

PBA President Pat Lynch raises an arguably more-compelling point in saying that publicizing the 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 further noted that the Mayor and the NYPD were “selectively releasing portions of videos to suit their own interests.”

That claim is indisputable. The department, after rejecting efforts by NY1 to obtain footage without it being filtered, has on a few occasions released it in situations where deadly force was used to show that the circumstances faced by police at the scene made this a reasonable response to perceived danger.

A case could be made that such selectivity casts a harsh light on other incidents in which the NYPD declines to release the footage, since an inference could be drawn that its unwillingness to do so means that conduct by officers may not have been justifiable, or at best fell into a gray area.

But the rationale for releasing such material in exigent circumstances can be seen from a 1992 case in which the department and the Mayor at the time, David Dinkins, did not swiftly release an audio recording that shed light on the fatal shooting by a cop of a low-level drug-dealer in Washington Heights.

Following the killing of Kiko Garcia by Police Officer Michael O’Keefe, there was an uproar in the community. Mr. Garcia was described by some who knew him as nothing worse than a harmless local character, while Officer O’Keefe had past civilian complaints against him bundled into a package that created an impression of a cop too quick to use force.

In an attempt to quell the unrest in the neighborhood, Mr. Dinkins opted to have the city pay for Mr. Garcia’s funeral, increasing the tensions between him and the PBA. A far-smarter—and less-costly politically—way to defuse the situation would have been to air the audio recording of the fatal encounter, in which Mr. Garcia had tried to grab Officer O’Keefe’s gun and the cop’s transmissions on his police radio made clear that he was embroiled in a life-and-death struggle before he shot his antagonist.

Years after the recording was belatedly released, one Dinkins administration official privately said it had been held back initially because of concern that Mr.

O’Keefe might have faked the struggle to cover up an unjustified shooting. But the sounds on the recording did not seem like they could have been convincingly faked if Al Pacino had been in the role of the cop.

Mr. Lynch was not president of the PBA at the time, but if he had been, it’s hard to believe that his reaction to the delay in getting out a tape that went a long way toward providing justification for Officer O’Keefe’s action would have been any different than then-union head Phil Caruso’s: that paying for Mr. Garcia’s funeral while allowing the cop to twist in the wind had been an outrage.

The publicizing of body-camera footage is going to be a fraught issue, to be sure, inviting complaints from community members and lawyers, in addition to the PBA. But there is also little question that doing so can sometimes play a vital role in informing the public and quelling controversy before outrage can overwhelm the facts.