NYPD Continues To Screw Over Its Oversight By Denying Access To Bodycam Footage

from the long-extended-middle-finger-of-the-law dept

The NYPD's war on its oversight continues. The secretive law enforcement agency has spent years fighting accountability and transparency, making up its own rules and engaging in openly hostile actions against public records requesters, city officials, internal oversight, and the somewhat-independent CCRB (Civilian Complaint Review Board). Journalists say the NYPD is worse than the CIA and FBI when it comes to records requests. The FBI and CIA say it's worse than a rogue state when it comes to respecting rights.

The NYPD probably doesn't wonder why it houses bad cops. In fact, it probably doesn't not even consider the worst of its ranks to actually be "bad" cops. Making things worse on the accountability side, the NYPD answers to two very powerful law enforcement unions, which makes it all but impossible for the department to punish bad cops, even if it wanted to. And while it's subject to public oversight via the CCRB, it has the power to override the board's decisions to ensure cops engaged in misconduct aren't punished too harshly for violating rights and destroying the public's trust.

The NYPD began wearing body cameras in 2017 as part of comprehensive reforms put in place by consent decrees issued by federal courts presiding over civil rights lawsuits over the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims and its minority-targeting "stop and frisk" program.

But body cameras continue to be mostly useful to prosecutors and of negligible value to the general public that was supposed to benefit from this new accountability tool. As ProPublica reports, even the civilian oversight board can't get the NYPD to hand over footage crucial to investigations of misconduct.

In some instances, the NYPD has told CCRB investigators no footage of an incident exists, only for the CCRB to later learn that it does. For example, during one investigation of an incident for which the NYPD said there was no footage, an officer later told investigators that she had her camera on.

Other times, the NYPD has acknowledged footage exists but refused to turn it over, citing privacy issues. In one case, an officer slammed a young man into the pavement, sending him to the hospital with a brain bleed. Seven body cameras worn by officers captured parts of the incident. But the NYPD withheld almost all the footage from CCRB investigators, on the grounds that a minor’s face could be seen in some of it.

This stonewalling is detailed in the NYPD Inspector General's latest report [PDF], which finds yet again that the NYPD has zero interest in holding its officers accountable. The NYPD is supposed to be subject to its oversight, but the reality is the oversight is subject to the NYPD.

The agency must rely on NYPD to produce BWC footage that is responsive to a request, making the progress of investigations dependent on NYPD’s capacity and discretion. As mentioned above, and discussed further below, capacity and manpower issues at NYPD have caused extensive delay in the past, and easily could again. But the problems are also substantive. For example, an NYPD searcher may consider certain tags to be not relevant or responsive even if the requesting CCRB investigator would have disagreed. This is problematic since only the investigator has complete knowledge of the investigation, and therefore is best suited to know what may be relevant. In such a case, not only might relevant BWC footage be withheld, but the CCRB investigator would never even know that such footage existed in the first place.

Even when the CCRB obtains footage, it could be redacted into abstraction by NYPD liaisons, who everyone has to assume are acting in good faith, even when it appears apparent they aren't.

When only NYPD has seen the unredacted footage, the redaction analysis, legal or otherwise, is impaired because NYPD has sole discretion regarding handling of the footage, but incomplete information as to the facts of the investigation and its procedural posture. This is especially problematic when the grounds asserted by NYPD for redaction are disputed or otherwise in doubt. Given the information disparities, the requesting investigative agency may find it difficult to effectively challenge the redactions, which can produce inaccurate or unnecessary redactions, cause additional delay, or force the requesting agency to make disclosures that may infringe on the independence or confidentiality of its investigations.

And, instead of things improving as time goes on, the NYPD's cooperation with its oversight appears to be getting worse.

CCRB reported that in the second quarter of 2019, 99 percent of BWC video requests remained open for 20 or more business days, or longer than one month. From the beginning of 2018 through the second Quarter of 2019, the percentage of footage returned redacted grew from six to 63 percent. CCRB also reports that there were occasions in which it was not notified that video had been redacted, nor was it provided an explanation for such redactions.

Since the NYPD retains control of all body worn camera footage, it can claim no relevant footage exists, even when it does. And there's no way for the CCRB to challenge this claim unless it comes up with evidence elsewhere that points to the existence of footage the NYPD claims is nonexistent.

Moreover, current (pre-MOU-implementation) procedures have resulted in a number of “false negative” returns. False negatives are defined as instances in which NYPD reports there is no relevant footage for a particular search, yet CCRB later learns that a pertinent video does exist. CCRB reports learning about false negatives through other police documents, during interviews, or via footage provided to the media, and attributes these false negatives in part to potential incompleteness of NYPD search criteria, incomplete tagging of videos in the system, as well as lack of geotagging of footage. Due to the inability to conduct its own searches, CCRB cannot be certain how many negative search results are accurate.

The solution is -- as the IG suggests -- that CCRB be given direct access to body camera footage. Quite obviously, the NYPD will never agree to this. And, since it runs its footage through Evidence.com -- Axon's proprietary portal -- the NYPD will be able to stonewall future requests by pointing to the fine print in Axon's contract or simply refusing to provide CCRB with access licenses.

Unless the city is willing to give the CCRB some teeth, it will continue to be nothing more than the illusion of oversight. The NYPD has to answer to the public, and it has shown it's unwilling to do that on any level. New York legislators need to be willing to stare down the blue-uniformed 800-lb gorilla in its midst. If it can't, the NYPD will continue to be as awful as it has been for decades.

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Filed Under: bodycams, nypd, oversight, transparency

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2021 @ 8:48am

    Why does footage need any redactions when released to an oversight board?

    Isn’t the oversight board prevented from releasing any of the information that the PD is also (legally) prevented from releasing?

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