When Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactic unconstitutional in 2013, she outlined a series of mandatory police reform measures, including a body camera pilot to determine if the new technology could help hold cops accountable. That pilot is expected to launch this month. Mayor de Blasio, who recently pledged to outfit all patrol officers with body cameras by 2019, praised the pilot. "Dozens of police forces around the country [are] already using them," he told reporters. "So this is the shape of things to come."
But draft guidelines for the pilot have raised concerns about surveillance and police accountability. Civil rights groups including the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented the plaintiffs in the stop-and-frisk case, submitted a filing in Manhattan Federal Court Wednesday night challenging the guidelines. Meanwhile, a grassroots coalition is calling on the city to drop its body camera plans entirely: no pilot, no program.
"There has to be room in the conversation for just 'no.' Outright 'no,'" said Josmar Trujillo of the Coalition to End Broken Windows, a grassroots campaign backed by roughly a dozen community groups opposed to over-policing in low-income neighborhoods. "The NYPD have always been one step ahead of the legal community, and the public at large. To think that they are not going to make this work for them would be naive."
The coalition is primarily concerned about surveillance capabilities, citing recent advancements in facial recognition technology (which is not included in the NYPD pilot). "Who is going to have access to this footage down the line? Are they going to share it with federal authorities?" Trujillo said. "The NYPD having more data, whether it's our personal information or video information, is not a good idea, period."
Civil liberties advocates have echoed this concern, as body cameras have gained national popularity. A recent report from the Constitution Project notes that cameras appear to be having a positive impact in some cities. For example, in 2015 the San Diego Police Department reported a 40 percent drop in complaints after cops adopted cameras. But the same study warns that without the right guidance "body-worn cameras could be used for generalized surveillance" that could "disproportionately impact minorities and other groups subject to higher rates of police interaction."
The New York Civil Liberties Union would like to see New York's body camera pilot policy improved. "The idea of them rolling back at this point is like saying, 'Let's disband the police department,'" argued NYCLU attorney Molly Kovel.
Kovel added that she understands the concern that a powerful agency like the NYPD might take advantage of new technology. "The [body camera] policy has mechanisms that are really there to make the cameras more palatable to police officers, and in that sense it's not wholly focused on police accountability," she said.
For example, the guidelines would allow police to review body camera footage before writing incident reports. Civilians, meanwhile, would not be able to access footage without filing a formal request. In most cases a Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] request: a process that
Under the proposed pilot, police would only be required to record under certain circumstances: "arrests; searches in the home; searches in the street; vertical patrols; uses of force; stops and frisks; and traffic stops," according to the draft policy.
"If this was a program where the cameras were always on, we would have more concern about surveillance," Kovel said. "This is different from a surveillance tool like a license plate reader, or a camera that is on all the time, or a futuristic drone system."
But Trujillo insists that the public already has a powerful police accountability tool in the cop watch network: civilians who document police in action.
"The great thing about cop watch is it's independent, and it's not controlled by the city," he said. "And it's not just about filming the police. There have been instances where [the community] will work with family members to recover surviellance footage, like from a bodega. It's not necessarily an easy-to-digest policy recommendation. It's more active resistance, every day, by the people."
NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis has said that the pilot guidelines are subject to change. "We review patrol guide procedures on a regular basis," he told reporters.