The NYPD has released a surveillance video intended to show that a police officer did not use an illegal chokehold during a 2013 arrest that resulted in a misconduct investigation.
The unidentified officer was initially found guilty of police misconduct by an administrative judge, but the verdict was overturned last month by Police Commissioner James O'Neill—the first time the head of the NYPD had exercised such power since taking the job in September.
The reversal, as well as the city's refusal to release any information about the incident, sparked outrage from government watchdog groups and City Councilman Rory Lancman, who threatened to subpoena the NYPD for records related to the misconduct case.
In response, the NYPD released surveillance footage of the incident on Wednesday, which they believe will put to rest any concerns about the encounter:
"This video clearly demonstrates that the Officer did not use a chokehold or any other prohibited tactic to prevent the defendant, who was under arrest and in handcuffs, from spitting on him and his partner and others confined in the elevator," an accompanying NYPD statement read.
According to police accountability experts, the release of the video, and the continued withholding of the officer's name, marks a significant turn in the ongoing battle over whether police disciplinary cases should be made public. While the NYPD had for decades disclosed the outcomes of these cases to reporters, the department abruptly stopped in 2016, after outgoing NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton claimed that he'd discovered the practice was in violation of a 40-year-old state law.
But while the city cannot compel the department to release info about a guilty cop under the 50-a law, any officer who is the subject of a complaint may waive their protections prohibiting public disclosure of surveillance footage, according to the NYPD.
Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, disagrees. "There's a complete disconnect between their statement and the fact that what they released is not 50-a protected material," Dunn told Gothamist. "The controversy here has been about them vacating the verdict, but they're still not releasing the trial room decision and the order [given by Police Commissioner James O'Neill] reversing it."
"This case, once again, demonstrates the need to challenge the NYPD's interpretation of 50-a," echoed Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney and the former legal director for the NYCLU. "For three decades 50-a was not a barrier to obtaining information about NYPD officers. Suddenly, in 2016 NYPD views 50-a differently."
"The NYPD is a mayoral agency. The Mayor can set the policy," Siegel continued. "If there is an existing case saying 50-a is a barrier to the public getting officer's information, then the Mayor and City Council can bring litigation challenging that decision and request a reversal. That is what leadership now calls for."
Austin Finan, a spokesperson for the mayor's office, told Gothamist earlier this week that the administration had "worked closely with stakeholders to come up with a thoughtful piece of legislation to reform 50-a," but was not able to do so during the current legislative session.
"We are committed to continuing the fight for transparency in the next legislative session," the spokesperson said. "Under the transparency reforms we're working to see realized, this information would be made public."
Both civil liberties attorneys told us that they were skeptical of claims that City Hall is in favor of reforming the disclosure law.
"On the flip side, they're being very aggressive about using 50-a to conceal disciplinary information, and that's something the mayor is totally responsible for and could change," Dunn said. "It's having the effect of concealing a wide range of NYPD practices."
A spokesperson for the mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.