Every vehicle in the NYPD's fleet of prisoner transport vans will soon be equipped with security cameras. Each of the 110 prisoner transport vans already in use will reportedly be retrofitted with security cameras in the next several months, costing the city $2,100 per vehicle, and any vans purchased in the future will already be equipped with cameras.
The NYPD is also expected to begin outfitting officers with body cameras sometime this year, although that project is currently months behind schedule.
"When something happens, to have a video record of it from the police officer's perspective is going to help in many ways. And God forbid, when something goes wrong, we are going to have a clearer sense of what happened," Mayor de Blasio said after the body camera pilot program was announced in 2014.
After several incidents of police brutality were brought to light by third-party recordings—including the death of Eric Garner, who was fatally choked by an NYPD officer in 2014—pressure mounted for police officers to be outfitted with body cameras. There is a similar sentiment behind the push for security cameras in police transport vans, although the NYPD denies the change was inspired by any specific incident.
"This is not a direct result of the Freddie Gray situation, but we wanted to take a look at prisoner safety and officer safety," Deputy Commissioner Stephen Davis told the Daily News. On April 12th, 2015, Freddie Gray was stopped by police in West Baltimore and detained after officers found a switchblade on him. Gray was placed in the back of a police van, where his spine was severed in transport, allegedly due to a "rough ride" intended to injure him. He died seven days later. This May, the Baltimore PD began retrofitting prisoner transport vans with cameras.
The Mayor's Management Report [pdf] for 2016 revealed that the city spent a staggering $228.5 million settling and paying out for judgements in police misconduct lawsuits during the last fiscal year—a figure that civil rights attorney David Rankin told Gothamist the NYPD is trying to decrease by curbing the number of police misconduct cases and softening its broken windows approach to policing.
Although anti-brutality activists agree that ending broken windows policing is crucial, they're not all sold on the role of surveillance cameras. The Movement For Black Lives' policy platform calls for an end to "the war on Black people," through "criminalization, incarceration, and killing," but argues that surveillance—including outfitting police officers with body cameras—isn't the best solution.
A three-month long investigation conducted by Fusion in 2014 showed that body cameras usually serve police more than citizens alleging misconduct—an interactive feature released by the New York Times earlier that year showed that body cameras can sometimes capture benign activity that looks threatening from a certain point of view. Security cameras placed in vans wouldn't necessarily have the same drawbacks as body cameras—but any footage captured would still need to be obtained by a Freedom Of Information Law request.
The NYPD's prisoner van cameras will reportedly take less time to implement than the stunted body camera program, and will record footage throughout the course of a prisoner's ride.