New York City police plan to put body cameras on all 23,000 of its patrol officers by 2019, an ambitious effort that would dwarf all others across the country.
But the nation’s largest police department is lagging behind other cities, with only limited experience with the cameras and zero currently on the streets.
Mayor Bill de Blasio says his body camera plan, announced during a proposed labor deal last month with the police officer’s union, is crucial to restoring trust between officers and the communities they serve, “creating an atmosphere of transparency and accountability for the good of all.”
A federal judge ordered the NYPD to try out body cameras as part of a 2013 ruling that found the department was wrongly targeting minorities with its stop and frisk tactic. The 2014 killing of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and other deaths at the hands of police around the U.S. led to increased demands that officers be issued wearable cameras.
The NYPD has only experimented with the cameras on small scale, starting with a 54-camera pilot program that ended last March. The larger roll-out, part of the federal order, began in earnest at the end of 2014 after de Blasio withdrew from the court appeals process. The aim is to have 1,000 cameras deployed to 20 precincts around the city this year.
The police labor deal, if ratified by officers, would clear one major obstacle: The union would drop a lawsuit over the cameras. Still, several officers said they have mixed feelings about having their every move recorded. Some believe it will vindicate their work. Others were offended, saying the cameras mean they can’t be trusted.
Civil rights advocates have also expressed concerns about how recordings of police interactions with citizens will be used.
The department plans to deploy the cameras and use lessons learned on the ground to adjust the program as needed. Some of the largest challenges are storage and access — when are officers allowed to turn the camera on and off, and who gets access to that footage.
“There are strong privacy interests to be considered in what is recorded and whether body camera footage is publicly disclosed,” said Lawrence Byrne, the department’s deputy commissioner for legal matters.