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January 12, 2018

PBA Sues City Over ‘Illegal’ Releasing Of Body-Camera Footage

Two Sides at Odds About Whether It Violates Civil-Rights Law


PATRICK J. LYNCH: ‘A reckless disregard’ by city.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association sued the city Jan. 9, saying its release of body-camera footage violates a state law requiring that disciplinary issues involving police officers be kept secret.

The release of the footage, which began over the summer, also violates the privacy of residents caught on film, the union said.

‘Affects Cops and Public’

“The basis of this suit is simple: we’re suing to prevent the Mayor and the NYPD from arbitrarily and illegally releasing body-camera footage,” PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “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.

“The Mayor and the NYPD have shown a reckless disregard for these concerns by circumventing the existing process set up by the State Legislature and selectively releasing portions of videos to suit their own interests. Nobody with a stake in these issues should be comfortable with this politicized, secret and unchecked process: not the district attorneys, not good-government advocates, not the public, and certainly not police officers and their families whose personal safety is being placed at risk.”

Mr. Lynch was referring to Section 50-a of the State Civil Rights Law, which provides that disciplinary information about police officers and certain other categories of public employees must be kept secret unless the officer involved agrees to its release or a judge orders it.

An Overlooked Section

The NYPD had ignored the provision for 40 years before deciding to enforce it—or perhaps realizing its applicability—in 2016. The decision led to complaints from advocacy groups and others that the city was backing away from Mayor de Blasio’s promises of government transparency. He has said that he opposes the law but that the city must follow it until it’s changed. He has asked the State Legislature to do so.

The PBA maintained that the law covered body-camera footage because they are part of personnel records. The city contended that it doesn’t.

That view was echoed Jan. 9 by Arnold Kriss, a former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Trials, who told NY1 it applied only to officers’ disciplinary records.

“This new record is separate from the original footage and is created for the sole purpose of disclosing to the public the relevant events leading up to and including the critical incident,” a city official told the Daily News. “This new record is not a personnel record and is therefore not subject to 50-a.”

1,000 Already in Program

About 1,000 officers are participating in a pilot program testing body cameras that began last spring. It was ordered by a Federal Judge as part of her 2013 verdict that the city was running its stop-and-frisk program in an unconstitutional fashion. The NYPD hopes to equip its entire patrol force with body cameras by next year.

Since the program began, the department has released edited body-camera footage of three police shootings, two of which were fatal. Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill makes the decision about when to release footage in consultation with the District Attorney involved.

The department has declined to release footage of other incidents that was requested by reporters, citing Section 50-a. The PBA suit charges that Mr. O’Neill is making decisions about what to release on an arbitrary basis.

Councilman Backs City

A spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, Austin Finan, defended the policy on releasing body-camera footage. “The Mayor and the Police Commissioner have spoken to the need for increasing transparency into the way our city is policed,” he said. “The release of body-camera footage, when possible, is an important extension of that commitment.”

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a leading foe of the stop-and-frisk program that was declared unconstitutional, said, “Releasing body-camera footage is one of the only ways that the public is able to hold the NYPD accountable, and the PBA is seeking to strip away this tool, one which even the NYPD has agreed is beneficial, out of sheer self-interest rather than public good.”