NYPD Inspector General Calls for Recording All Street Encounters With Body Cameras

The city's Department of Investigation is recommending that NYPD officers are mandated to turn on body cameras during all street encounters.

Mayor Bill de Blasio holds up a body camera at a press conference last December. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Mayor Bill de Blasio holds up a body camera at a press conference last December. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images) Andrew Burton/Getty Images

After a review of the NYPD’s pilot program for the use of body-worn cameras, the city’s Department of Investigation is recommending that officers are mandated to turn on the cameras during all street encounters—and keep the footage for at least 18 months instead of just a year.

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The recommendations are part of a lengthy report by DOI Commissioner Mark Peters and NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure, whose office was created in 2013 by the City Council as it sought to grapple with divisions between minority communities and the police department. The review concerned the department’s use of 54 body cameras around the city, an effort to test the waters before using them more broadly, which was rolled out in 2014 following the death of Eric Garner in an apparent police chokehold—an incident caught on video by a bystander.

In its report, the DOI urged the NYPD to deal with its questions and recommendations before broadening its use of body cameras.

“Several of these recommendations—based on interviews with police officials and prosecutors, as well as the experiences of police departments nationwide—involve the safety of officers and witnesses as well as the integrity of the prosecution process. These issues, noted below, should be resolved prior to any expansion of the [body-worn camera] program,” the report reads.

The question of whether body cameras can prevent deadly encounters between police and civilians—or lead to prosecutions after the fact—has been in the spotlight not only in the wake of Garner’s death, but in the aftermath of other cases caught on tape as well. Civilian video in the death of South Carolina man Walter Scott showed a drastically different version of events than that described by the officer, Michael Slager, who shot the unarmed man and was eventually charged in his death. More recently, a body-worn camera showed a police stop in which University of Cincinnati officer Ryan Tensing shot an unarmed man, Samuel Dubose, in the head—again contradicting the officer’s story and leading to charges.

The inspector general’s office considered five main areas in reviewing the pilot—officer discretion about when to record; when to notify citizens a camera is being used; safeguards to ensure officers follow the rules around the cameras; access to footage by officers and the public; and how long to retain—and when to purge—footage from the cameras, the use of which has sparked privacy concerns.

The current policy instructs officers to turn on the cameras once a situation—a traffic stop, a street encounter—rises to a “reasonable suspicion,” but the report argues that may not go far enough, and that the cameras should be turned on during all street encounters. (In the report, cameras are referred to by an acronym, BWCs, for body-worn cameras.

“Because the ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard for BWCs activation presents multiple challenges, NYPD should broaden the situations where BWCs should be activated, including all street encounters or all investigative contacts. NYPD’s policy should likewise include multiple examples to illustrate the broad range of covered encounters, as such examples may assist officers with recalling and interpreting the policy while on duty,” the report reads.

But it also makes room for the privacy of “vulnerable” citizens, urging the department to consider restricting recordings when cops are talking to people including victims of sex crime or child abuse, or when an undercover officers or confidential informant’s identity may be at stake.

Among other major issues surrounding the use of body cameras is how long to store the footage—which can be a costly and cumbersome endeavor, even with the advent of cloud-based technology. The current pilot calls for footage to be kept for at least a year—indefinitely if it relates to an arrest or a complaint. But the report argues that yearlong time period isn’t long enough, as it falls short of the 18 months a person has to bring a complaint before the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“NYPD’s current one-year retention period may be insufficient because it fails to capture the entirety of CCRB and NYPD’s 18-month statute of limitations on filing administrative charges and specifications,” the report reads, “and the three-year statute of limitations on filing federal civil rights claims.”

The minimum retention period, the report argues, should be at least 18 months.

The report also urges the NYPD to create “an example notification phrase,” officers can use to inform someone they are being videotaped—which would not be mandatory but which the report argues might “minimize the likelihood that an officer’s choice of words will escalate a situation.”

It also ensures that members of the public are receiving necessary information and provides officers with professional language to fall back on should an encounter become confrontational,” the report says.

With the recordings likely to become important pieces of evidence in allegations of misconduct—on either side of a police encounter—the report also calls for clear rules requiring officers, or complaining citizens, not be permitted to watch the recording before giving statements.

In other jurisdictions, police departments have been bombarded by requests to view videos—which, in New York, would qualify as public records under the Freedom of Information Law, according to the report. The IG’s office didn’t have a solution for the NYPD on that front, but urged them to figure one out.

“NYPD should develop a process for addressing the unique challenges that BWC FOIL requests will pose prior to embarking on any expansion of this program,” the report says.

NYPD Inspector General Calls for Recording All Street Encounters With Body Cameras