New York Police Union Sues NYPD To Block Public Release Of Body Camera Footage
from the PBA-not-interested-in-having-public-servants-serve-the-public dept
The route to equipping the NYPD with body cameras ran through a federal courtroom. As part of the remedies handed down in a civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, body cameras became required equipment for officers.
NYPD officials seemed to support the plan. Not so the ostensible representative of the NYPD, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA). The NYPD’s union fought the cameras much as they have fought anything with a hint of accountability. A report by the NYPD’s internal oversight found officers much less concerned about body cameras and access to footage than their supposed union reps.
A long-delayed camera policy finally rolled out, making it clear cameras would serve officers and prosecutors much more than they would the general public. Now, the PBA is going to court to block the release of camera footage to the public. The PBA hopes the court will read public records laws the way it does, tossing body cam footage into the gaping hole of New York public records exemptions.
The union points to a New York statute, Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, that declares “all personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” must be “confidential and not subject to inspection or review,” permitting their release only with the consent of the police officer or a court order. According to the union, body camera footage should be considered such personnel records.
The exemption is already awful, distancing officers from accountability by ensuring the public cannot access anything related to disciplinary actions or internal investigations. If a court finds in favor of the PBA, footage captured by officers while performing their duties in public would suddenly become internal records the NYPD would be forbidden by state law from releasing.
This would completely subvert one of the key public benefits of body cameras. As the ACLU points out, denying access to footage to the public turns body cameras into spywear.
A win for the PBA would turn body cameras, paid for with millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, into yet another NYPD mass surveillance tool to be used against vulnerable New Yorkers. Public support for body cameras will not last if the police accountability aspect of the devices is erased and they simply become public surveillance devices.
This would be a devastating blow for holding officers responsible for their actions and would negate the potential value body cameras could add to improving police-community relations.
The PBA is taking an extreme stance on this issue, which places the union in apparent opposition of the officers it represents. The lawsuit also names the NYPD as a defendant. The department has argued body cam footage is not a “personnel record,” but is documentation of an event. According to the NYPD’s arguments, it retains the right to release footage at its discretion after making any redactions necessary to comply with New York privacy laws.
The NYPD is finally trying to do something to repair its relationship with the communities they serve by releasing footage of controversial incidents. No sooner does the NYPD take a small step towards transparency and accountability than Pat Lynch and the PBA arrive on the scene to sue this urge into submission. The public isn’t being served by this public sector union. Considering the PBA is suing the employer of the officers it represents, it could be argued the union isn’t doing much to serve its members either. This lawsuit pit officers against the public at a crucial time when taking a less antagonistic stance would be far more beneficial.