The union representing rank-and-file police officers is suing Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, alleging that the city is violating state law in their decision to release body-worn camera footage.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents thousands of uniformed police officers, is filing suit at New York State Supreme Court on Tuesday related to section 50-A of the state's civil rights law which, the union argues, precludes footage from a body-worn camera to be released to the public unless there is a court order.
The lawsuit alleges the city, at the direction of de Blasio and NYPD leadership, is deciding to release footage by using “arbitrary and inconsistent” parameters that also take “political considerations” into account and ignore the state law.
The state law was passed in 1976 and prohibits the public issuance or mention in court of an officer’s personnel record without judicial approval — a key portion of the law which union President Pat Lynch said also extends to the release of body-worn camera footage.
“We're suing to prevent the Mayor and the NYPD from arbitrarily and illegally releasing body camera footage. 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,” Lynch said in a statement. “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."
Section 50-A has been the subject of much debate in recent years — particularly after several high profile police-involved shootings and use of force incidents by officers. For years, the department had routinely released the disciplinary records of officers involved in such incidents to the press, but that policy was halted more than a year ago in the fallout of Eric Garner’s death. Last March, a Manhattan appeals court ruled in two separate lawsuits that the long-established but controversial provision prevents the disciplinary records of police officers from being publicly released.
De Blasio, who campaigned on a promise to improve police community relations and hold officers accountable when involved in deaths of civilians, has been fiercely criticized for his decision to enforce the law as currently written, despite saying he believes records should be released. De Blasio has also said he plans to work with state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session in Albany to change the law.
“The Mayor and the Police Commissioner have spoken to the need for increasing transparency into the way our city is policed," Austin Finan, a spokesperson for de Blasio, said in a statement. "The release of body camera footage, when possible, is an important extension of that commitment."
The NYPD first began equipping some of its police officers with cameras last April as part of a pilot program in response to outcry over the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk program.
Since then, three police-involved shootings have been captured by the devices and some footage captured in all three incidents has been released to the public.
As part of its lawsuit, the union argues neither the mayor or the police commissioner are or should be the “sole and final arbiters” to decide if body-worn camera footage should be released. Instead, the union says the law provides a process for the judicial considerations of all the parties involved — including civilians captured in the video and their families — and takes into consideration the need for the protection of privacy and the completion of investigations.
In their suit, the PBA cites an incident from last September, in which the NYPD released 34 minutes of footage to the press which showed a heated exchange before the fatal shooting of Miguel Richards, a 31-year-old college student in the Bronx who was holding a knife and a toy gun. The video shows police officers shooting Richards after he aims the gun with what appeared to be a laser sight at one of the officers.
The PBA’s suit alleges the city decided to release the video over the objection of Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark who, at the time, said she supported the need for transparency, but was required to complete an investigation into whether the officers involved should face criminal charges first.
City officials said Tuesday the city does not believe body camera footage is subject to the 50-A law. In addition, officials said the footage that has been publicly released includes redactions to make the information released in the video in compliance with the Freedom of Information Law. The department believes the new record is not a personnel record and therefore is not subject to 50-A enforcement.
A Law Department spokesperson said the department is reviewing the complaint.
J. Peter Donald, assistant commissioner for communication and public information at the NYPD, defended the department’s decision to release body worn camera footage in certain instances.
“The police commissioner has spoken, repeatedly, on the need for increased transparency in how we police," Donald said. "The release of body camera footage, when possible, is an important extension of that commitment."