A union representing New York City police officers sued the department Tuesday, saying its release of body camera footage without a court order violates a state law that makes officer disciplinary records confidential.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents about 24,000 uniformed officers, said the public release of footage, which began last summer on a limited basis, also violates the privacy of everyday citizens caught on camera.
“This conduct disregards not only the clear prohibitions, but also the very serious safety, privacy, due process, and other interests” of everyone seen in such videos, said the lawsuit, filed in a state court in Manhattan.
The city’s law department said it is reviewing the complaint.
“The mayor and the police commissioner have spoken to the need for increasing transparency into the way our city is policed. The release of body camera footage, when possible, is an important extension of that commitment,” said Austin Finan, a spokesman for the mayor.
In its lawsuit, the union cited New York Civil Rights Law 50-a, which bars the public release of all police “personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion,” unless a judge has signed off on the disclosure.
The law is silent on what, exactly, constitutes a personnel record, but in practice the department has not interpreted that to mean video footage of officers interacting with the public. It has routinely released video footage showing officers doing their jobs, including recordings made by security cameras or by department personnel, and began selectively disclosing body camera footage in September.
Use of body cameras in police departments has exploded in the past five years, in part as a way to address transparency concerns amid tensions over killings of unarmed black men by officers. The public has largely been in favor of using cameras and departments have advertised them as a way to protect police from false accusations.
But their use has been met with resistance. Chicago’s police union is fighting body cameras on the grounds that their implementation wasn’t properly negotiated with the union and violated the labor contract. Seattle’s police union filed a complaint over the summer.
Decisions about whether to release or withhold footage have also been contentious. In Chicago, city officials initially fought the release of video showing a white officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times in October 2014, and protests erupted when the footage was eventually released.
In some cities, the decision to release such video is made by mayors or prosecutors. In San Diego, the district attorney has said videos would not be released until her office has completed a review and only sections relevant to the investigation would be released. In Washington, D.C., the mayor’s office decides with input from police and prosecutors.
NYPD officials released the first footage of a fatal police shooting caught on a body camera in September 2017. In a note to officers, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said the department was releasing the footage because it was committed to being transparent. The Bronx district attorney objected to the release, because she had not yet finished her investigation of the fatal shooting of Miguel Richards.
Footage from other shootings has since been released; department officials have said they are taking it on a case-by-case basis. That includes decisions about how much footage to release, whether to edit excerpts or whether to make it public at all.
Patrick Lynch, head of the union, said the mayor and police commissioner, also named in the suit, are “selectively releasing portions of videos to suit their own interests.”
“Nobody with a stake in these issues should be comfortable with this politicized, secret and unchecked process: not the district attorneys, not good government advocates, not the public, and certainly not police officers and their families whose personal safety is being placed at risk.”