City Limits July 15, 2016

NYPD Critics Hope to Reassert Oversight Power with ‘Right to Record’ Proposal

By Roshan Abraham

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Thursday's rally saw as much talk about a bill that had been shelved, the Right to Know Act, as the one being proposed, the Right to Record Act. (Photo: Roshan Abraham)

A bill that would strengthen constitutional protections to film police officers was introduced at City Hall on Thursday, as supporters voiced growing criticism of Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for a recent back-room deal with Police Commissioner William Bratton.

City Council-members Jumaane Williams and Helen Rosenthal introduced the Right to Record Act, which describes specific behavior police officers allegedly use to intimidate citizens, codifying it as unlawful. Councilmembers Ydanis Rodriguez, Carlos Menchaca, Rosie Mendez and Inez Barron also spoke in favor of the bill.

Barron, whose district covers Brownsville and East New York, was among those critical of de Blasio and Mark-Viverito’s recent agreement with Commissioner Bratton to block the Right To Know Act, two bills that would bring long-sought reforms requiring police officers to identify themselves to citizens, in favor of reforms applied internally.

"We need to stand strong, we need to not buckle, and we need to make sure these bills are signed into law, all of it" Barron said.

The Constitutional protections that the Right To Record act would strengthen are often violated by the NYPD, according to NYCLU advocacy director Johanna Miller. Miller says that broad constitutional protection without detailed local legislation to codify it makes it challenging for citizens to bring lawsuits to fruition.

"Under a constitutional claim, you would be trying to make a factual argument that your right was interfered with," Miller says. Miller says that because the Constitution is not specific on what constitutes interference, citizens may have trouble proving in court that a police officer violated their rights.

"There’s not a list of objective types of behaviors that are banned under the Constitution, so that would make those arguments a little easier to bring," Miller says.

The Right to Record law would specifically make it illegal for a police officer to threaten someone for filming them, interfere with filming, or stop, search, or frisk a citizen for filming. The law would allow citizens whose right to record has been interfered with to bring civil lawsuits against the police, allowing for punitive damages. It would also allow the plaintiff an easier path to compensation for attorney and expert fees.

The law would require more transparency and force officers to provide reports every 30 days identifying people issued summonses or arrested who were also filming during the encounter.

PBA President Patrick Lynch issued a statement on the bill on Thursday: "Civilians already have a constitutional right to record police officers, so this legislation serves no purpose other than to encourage activists to not only record but interfere with police activity." Lynch said that the legislation would be helpful if it established a safe distance from which citizens could record.

Miller says that in addition to confiscating cameras or detaining citizens for filming, a common behavior is for police officers to shine a flashlight into a phone or camera, behavior that the proposed legislation would prohibit.

Miller was also critical of the deal to kill the Right to Know proposals, which she said suggests the deal demonstrates that Bratton effectively has veto power over the City Council, which should function as an oversight agency to keep police accountable.

Yul-San Liem, with Communities United for Police Reform, agreed. "If you look at many, many attempts to create change in the NYPD, we have a commissioner that doesn’t want it to happen, we have an entire department that doesn’t want it to happen, we have a mayor that’s supporting the commissioner. We have a speaker that is allying with the NYPD," Liem said. "In spite of the fact that we have a mayor that came in on a police reform promise, we’re seeing that again and again."

The mayor defended his deal with Bratton during a weekly call-in segment on WNYC with Brian Lehrer on Friday, saying, "I think the administrative route was the right route." De Blasio said that working with the police commissioner lead to clearer guidelines on how to approach potential searches and communicate with the community.