It seems inevitable that NYPD officers will be wearing body cameras in the near future. As part of the remedies ordered by Judge Scheindlin in her stop-and-frisk decision, a trial program for body cameras is due to roll out, along with additional oversight.
I am ordering the NYPD to institute a pilot project in which bodyworn cameras will be worn for a one-year period by officers on patrol in one precinct per borough -- specifically the precinct with the highest number of stops during 2012.
The two former defenders of the cop status quo -- Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly -- both hated the idea. Bloomberg derided it in a press conference
after Scheindlin's decision, saying the public would contest any body cam footage that didn't live up to preconceived notions
A camera on the lapel or hat of a police officer... He didn't turn the right way. My god, he DELIBERATELY did it. It's a solution that's not a solution…
The city's lawyers, appealing Scheindlin's decision, made the disingenuous argument that the public's privacy would be damaged by police body cameras.
[I]mplementing a body camera pilot project itself poses significant harm in terms of time, resources and possible impingement on privacy rights of the public.
Somehow, the thousands of surveillance cameras
deployed by the NYPD pose no threat to privacy. Only those worn (under protest) by officers do.
But Bloomberg and Kelly are no longer co-helming the NYPD. In a press conference following Eric Garner's death
at the hands of NYPD officers, Mayor Bill de Blasio stated
he felt body cameras are, for the most part, a "productive" idea.
The body cameras are part of the agreement we reached with the federal judge, but they are complicated[…] I think the basic reality is that it is a technology that we agreed to as part of that settlement, but it’s not something that has been perfected yet, and it’s something that has to be worked on quite a bit to be used on the kind of scale we’re talking about here. But I certainly think it’s a productive idea, and it will, I think, ultimately improve the relationship between police and community.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton is also in favor of police-worn cameras
In an appearance on MSNBC Wednesday morning, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton predicted officers around the country will eventually be wearing video cameras on their bodies to record interactions with the public.
"That's the direction where American policing is going. That's where we're going in the NYPD. We're working very closely with the LAPD, who's about a year ahead of us in putting cameras in place," he said.
What evidence exists as to body cameras and their impact on both police misconduct and baseless complaints is very limited at this point. But what has been gathered so far is largely positive -- both for police departments and citizens. Rialto, CA's police department ran a body camera test program and was pleasantly surprised by the results
The Rialto study began in February 2012 and will run until this July. The results from the first 12 months are striking. Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.
It doesn't just encourage police officers to behave better and with more restraint, it also heads off bogus misconduct complaints. If both parties know they're being recorded, both parties behave better and are less likely to misconstrue events.
New York's Public Advocate's office has just released a report
supporting the use of body cameras by the NYPD. It notes that the investment required to outfit the entire
NYPD is only a small fraction of the millions of dollars paid out every year to settle police misconduct cases
The public advocate's office estimates that equipping 15 percent of the city's police force would cost under $5 million, with each camera costing $450 to $900. Outfitting the entire department would run about $32 million…
The city paid roughly $152 million as a result of claims of police misconduct, the report states.
The cost for the entire NYPD is only one-fifth of one year's
settlements. If the cameras are only half as effective as they were in Rialto in terms of reducing complaints, the corresponding savings in settlements should be enough to buy every cop in the city a new body cam every year
. If a reduction in complaints tracks almost directly with the number of lawsuits settled, this would result in a minimum of a $50-60 million drop in settlements. And that's at half the 88% drop in complaints reported by Rialto's PD.
Guess who doesn't
want to see police officers outfitted with body cams? Unlike last year, both the mayor and the police commissioner are on board with the idea. The holdout here is the walking embarrassment that is Pat Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association (the largest union within the NYPD), whom we last heard decrying the cellphone-wielding citizens trying to "demonize" cops with their recordings
of police brutality. Here's Pat on the issue of body cameras
"We are reserving our decision on body cameras until we see some real evidence of their effectiveness and impact on the officers who carry them. The Public Advocate cites the $152 million that the city spends on lawsuits against police officers but what she fails to say is that the city refuses to fight even the most ridiculous and baseless of the claims. Instead, they settle these ridiculous suits when they should fight everyone of them to conclusion which would effectively put an end to quick buck lawsuits against our officers."
Hey, Pat: you know what else "effectively puts an end to quick buck lawsuits against officers?" Body cameras. When parties know the situation is being recorded, the quick bucksters are less likely to file complaints they know can easily be contradicted. Putting body cameras on officers actually helps shield them from bogus complaints.
And if your problem is that the city rolls over for "ridiculous and baseless claims," why not give your officers a weapon to help battle those? In this day and age, "your word against mine" just isn't enough, even with prosecutors and judges still more than willing to assume a police officer always tells the truth
The "downside," of course, is that is that body cameras also record bad behavior by police officers. For Pat Lynch, this potential outcome is unacceptable. It's much, much harder to defend officers whose misconduct is caught on tape. (But not impossible
…) And police union leaders are known for their willingness to defend the worst of the worst, even in the face of public outcry or, even worse, when police departments are trying to rid themselves
of bad cops they can no longer afford to indulge.
If Lynch is tired of his officers being "demonized" by camera-wielding citizens, he should jump at this chance to give his officers a chance to fight back with recordings of their own. Instead, he just spins the Public Advocate's settlement numbers as an indicator of a city too willing to indulge baseless lawsuits. His cops can do no wrong and are oppressed by the tyranny of the public. But rather than give his men the technology to prove his theories, he argues against it, claiming this particular jury is still out.