The civilian-run board that investigates complaints of police misconduct recommended discipline for two New York Police Department officers who allegedly harassed a woman when she tried to videotape them.
Mercedes Pope said she wanted to take a video to protect some kids in her Harlem neighborhood during a tense interaction with police. It was April 2020, early in the pandemic, and Pope said two officers were telling the group to social distance. She said the officers weren’t wearing masks.
Pope claimed that police pepper sprayed her before she even got the chance to take out her phone. Investigators have been looking into Pope's case for about two years, and she said the process has been overwhelming.
"It's definitely traumatizing to keep reliving it, to keep having to repeat the same story, to keep re-seeing it again," she said during a press conference Monday, after meeting with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) about her case.
Multiple activists and local leaders joined Pope on the steps of City Hall, to urge the mayor and the police department to punish the officers. They also expressed support for what they called “cop watching” – observing and filming officer misconduct.
“Not only is this a legal right that should be protected, but this is actually our duty,” said Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan, who represents parts of Harlem and considers herself a “cop watcher.” “It is our duty to cop watch, because we need to find ways to hold police accountable.”
The City Council passed the Right to Record Act in summer 2020, after Pope’s encounter with police and shortly after a video of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd sparked nationwide protests against police violence. The legislation, sponsored by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, protects civilians who tape officers, as long as they don’t interfere with lawful work. The state also enacted a law several years ago to guard the right to record law enforcement.
The Legal Aid Society has filed at least two lawsuits against the city in recent years on behalf of New Yorkers who said they were punished for filming police. In 2016, their client Ruben An brought a federal civil rights complaint after officers allegedly twisted his arm, pushed him against a wall and arrested him for recording police as he passed by on the sidewalk. Earlier this year, Legal Aid sued the city and several officers who allegedly retaliated against a woman who videotaped the arrest of her child’s dad outside her home in Brooklyn.
The NYPD did not respond to a question from Gothamist about whether officers are trained to follow the city’s Right to Record Act. However, a 2014 internal memo obtained by Gothamist at the time reminded officers “that members of the public are legally allowed to record (by video, audio, or photography) police interactions.” The memo went on to state that “members of the service will not interfere with a person’s use of recording devices to record police interactions” and that doing so would be a violation of the first amendment.
Mayor Eric Adams has said he is OK with recording, but he has asked New Yorkers not to let filming get in the way of police work.
“If an officer is on the ground wrestling with someone that has a gun, they should not have to worry about someone standing over them with a camera,” he told reporters in March.
“There’s a proper way to police, and there’s a proper way to document it,” Adams said. “If your iPhone can’t catch that picture with you being at a safe distance, then you need to upgrade your iPhone.”
In Pope’s case, the CCRB has found evidence that both officers broke policy. The board has recommended a medium tier of discipline for one of the officers, Michael Duchatellier, and more serious charges for the officer who allegedly pepper sprayed Pope, Chardy Alberto. His case will go to an administrative trial.
The police department said the commissioner will review the board's findings once the case is complete. The mayor’s office said Adams stands by the CCRB’s decisions.