City maintains not-quite-yet position on NYPD cameras

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A model wears a body camera. (Courtesy Taser Branding)
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Almost exactly one year ago, a federal judge said the New York Police Department had violated the constitutional rights of millions of New York City residents by targeting them for a procedure known as stop-question-and-frisk. The judge ordered a series of changes, including requiring officers in five precincts with the highest number of stops to wear cameras for at least a year.

The ruling was immediately challenged by several police unions and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg's successor, Bill de Blasio, moved to quickly settle the case.

But of the cameras, de Blasio said last month, “It’s not something that has been perfected yet and it’s something that has to be worked on ... to be used on the kind of scale we’re talking about here.”

Bill Bratton, de Blasio's police commission, said back in 2013 that he wanted his officers to wear cameras. But last week, Bratton's spokesman told Capital, “No final decisions have yet been made as to the implementation of these applications in the field.”

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Despite the city's cautious official pace, cameras are increasingly on New York police officers already, as a game-changing amateur video of the arrest of Eric Garner showed. (Garner died in police custody following the arrest; the video shows an officer restraining him with what appears to be a chokehold, as Garner says that he can't breathe.)

Since July 13, there have been four police encounters captured by amateur video that have led to investigations by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau, the Civilian Compliant Review Board and, in Garner's case, the Staten Island district attorney.

(Full disclosure: My brother Will Paybarah was arrested in March after trying to videotape an officer who was ticketing him for running a red light on his bicycle. He logged a complaint with the CCRB and a lawsuit is in the works. His case is not related to any of the four encounters under broad investigation.)

Meanwhile, calls for the department to fit officers with their own cameras are growing more insistent. 

This week, the Daily News editorial page said, “There’s no reason for Commissioner Bill Bratton to wait, because cameras are inevitably going to become standard-issue NYPD equipment.”

At a protest outside City Hall last month after Garner’s death, Public Advocate Letitia James said “all street encounters should be videoed, to avoid this from happening again.”

In a letter she and ten other lawmakers sent to de Blasio, she called for starting a year-long pilot program (the same kind the federal judge urged in the stop-and-frisk case last year).

According to a top James aide, she met directly with de Blasio at City Hall last week to discuss how that kind of program would work. Yesterday, James she had a similar meeting with police reform advocates.

The mayor, for now, is sticking to his position.

(Asked to elaborate on his earlier comment that cameras were “not something that has been perfected” and “has to be worked on,” de Blasio’s spokesman Phil Walzak would only point to the mayor’s public statement.)

There are logistical challenges involved with equipping even a portion of the country’s largest police department—there are more than 30,000 NYPD officers—with point-and-shoot video cameras.

But the technology involved in generating video, which de Blasio suggests is part of the hold-up, probably isn't foremost among them.

“Anybody can go into a store and buy one these all-weather cameras and put it on top of their ski helmet,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College. “The cost and working out these data usage issues should not be prohibitive.”

The challenge is more in what the city would do with the video once its acquired.

“The technology barriers to wearing body cameras is not huge,” said John DeCarlo, a former police chief in Branford, Connecticut who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "But there needs to be infrastructure in place to handle the deluge of footage."

"If we do it wirelessly, what ensures it transfers correctly?" he said. "Do we do it on SD [or memory] cards? How do I index it? By date and time? Geography? Crime type?”

Some police departments in America and elsewhere have in fact begun using the cameras, but it's usually been in departments only a fraction the size of the NYPD, which is by far the largest police department in the country.

Craig Fischer, a researcher at the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, an independent think tank focused on criminal justice issues, told Capital, "Both Los Angeles and London are currently piloting cameras. Greater Manchester [in England] is also a huge department that has used cameras for a while. Other fairly large cities that use them include Fort Worth, Phoenix, San Diego, Oakland, and Albuquerque. Las Vegas recently started rolling them out, and New Orleans plans to implement them at some point soon."

In July, officers in Brisbane, Australia were given “lightweight spy-type cameras” in advance of the G20 meeting there.  According to one local report, the head of the police union “is disappointed more devices won’t be issued.”

DeCarlo said his department in Branford was small enough—fewer than 50 officers—so that the logistical challenges of data storage were negligible.

Once his officers were equipped with the cameras, which cost between $600 and 800 each, “the effect we saw was almost immediate,” he said.

Within the first week, he said, a woman who had been pulled over for a routine traffic stop walked into headquarters and said the officer had sexually harassed her.

“Even before we called the officer in, we reviewed the video and nothing like that was going on. In fact, the officer was really polite,” he said.

Cops there took notice.

“Officers were really wary of us hanging cameras on them and this incident made believers of them,” DeCarlo said.

He said cameras worn by officers in another police department he consults for saw a reduction in civilian complaints compared to the year before. Nothing changed about the way officers were trained or sent out into the field, except for wearing cameras, DeCarlo said.

“Officers stopped whatever they were doing and it was irrefutable that we saw a reduction in civilian complaints,” he said. "They saw their behavior was being recorded and it got better."

The current spokesman for the Branford Police Department, Captain Geoffrey Morgan, said there has only been one substantiated claim of inappropriate behavior by a police officer there since they began wearing cameras in the mid 2000s. (It was for verbal exchange between a higher ranking officer and a suspect; Morgan noted the incident did not involve the use of force.)

Police videotapes in Branford are held for 30 days and are automatically deleted unless they are linked to a specific investigation, Morgan said. They do not go back into the tapes and fish for suspects, or use it to build a database of people to review later in future investigations, he said.

“We’re not randomly keeping video files of people just because,” he said.

Morgan, the spokesman there, said the public, and the officers are used to being filmed.

“I haven’t talked to anybody yet who is aggrieved they’ve been videotaped," he said. "We’re not doing anything different than anybody with an iPhone.” 

But, Morgan said, the size and scale of the NYPD makes it “a horse of a different color. Does the city want to spend that kind of money?”

In August 2012, the city said they had "approximately 3,000 Closed-Circuit TV cameras connected to the Domain Awareness System," a sophisticated database of streaming information that includes things like smart cameras and license-plate readers. By April 2013, there were approximately 4,000 cameras the city was using. The price tag for running the Domain Awareness System, which gathers information from the cameras, 911 calls and other law enforcement databases, was about $230 million annually, paid with city dollars and federal grants.

But when it comes to body cameras for police officers, the challenge isn't just logistical, but political.

The prospect of their introduction is strongly opposed by the police officers' union, which had arrived at a tentative peace with the mayor after a campaign in which de Blasio was heavily critical of the department and its then-commissioner. (That accord appears to be eroding.)

Last August, Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch released a statement opposing “body cameras” an arguing that they could make officers less safe.

“Our members are already weighed down with equipment like escape hoods, mace, flashlights, memo books, asps, radio, handcuffs and the like. Additional equipment becomes an encumbrance and a safety issue for those carrying it,” he said.

He also said in the statement, “New York City is already saturated with video cameras,” and, “The outer boroughs have traffic cameras and countless private and public security cameras located everywhere so there is simply no need to equip patrol officers with body cams.”

Instead of buying cameras, Lynch said, the city should be “hiring more police officers.”

When asked Tuesday about the use of body cameras for police officers, Lynch said, “That’s an option that we need to talk about” but that “no one’s had a discussion in how it works, or how it doesn’t work. Does it help, or it doesn’t help? So, we’ll hold off that conclusion until we have that discussion, until we see the data that says otherwise, whether it’s good or not. So the conclusion is, wait and see.”