Sixty cops will soon wear cameras as part of a program to test a technology that is widely used by law enforcement throughout the U.S. — and could “de-escalate” police-civilian encounters, the city’s top cop said Thursday.
The pilot program was ordered by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in a 2013 verdict that found the NYPD’s use of the stop-and-frisk tactic was unconstitutional because it targeted minority communities.
In coming months, two varieties of cameras will be tested by cops in six police commands, including a precinct in each borough.
The commands include crime-plagued areas of Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn, and Staten Island’s 120th Precinct, where Eric Garner died July 17 in a confrontation with police.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said he expects the cameras will offer protection to both citizens and police officers, and could yield valuable evidence for use in trials.
“The idea is the person understands that they are being recorded and there is an ability to test the veracity (of a person’s account) through the use of the camera devices,” Bratton said.
“Sometimes, being quite frank with you, complainants lie — bald-faced lies. And I think, clearly, the officer, knowing that it’s being recorded — in most instances it will affect the behavior of the officers in a good way. I think he or she will feel it’s an additional protection for them.”
He said the cameras are also the “wave of the future,” and something all cops will soon want as part of their gear.
The program comes at a time when the NYPD is facing criticism over Garner’s death, a rise in shootings and the aggressive use of stop-and-frisk under the previous NYPD Commissioner, Raymond Kelly.
The specifics of the program — most notably concerning confidentiality and which encounters cops must record — have not yet been determined.
The Police Foundation, a private group that raises money for various NYPD initiatives, paid about $60,000 for the cameras. One model, built by Taser, can be mounted on a cop’s shoulder, collar or glasses. The other, made by Vievu, is designed to be worn on an officer’s shirt.
But potential future costs, assuming the pilot is expanded throughout the NYPD, will run into the tens of millions of dollars a year just for file storage, Bratton said.
“This is an extraordinarily complex initiative,” Bratton said.
Mayor de Blasio, in a joint statement with Public Advocate Letitia James, also noted that many questions need to be answered, but added that the city will “do everything it takes to stay the safest big city in the nation.”
“This pilot program will provide transparency, accountability, and protection for both the police officers and those they serve, while reducing financial losses for the city,” their statement added.
Nearly 4,000 police agencies around the country have been using body cameras for some years or are testing them, including the police force in Los Angeles, whose program was studied by the NYPD.
The precincts involved were selected, per Scheindlin’s decision in Floyd vs. the City of New York, because they posted a high number of stops in 2012. In addition to Staten Island’s 120th Precinct, the others were the 75th Precinct, in East New York, Brooklyn; the 40th Precinct, in the Highbridge section of the Bronx; the 23rd Precinct, in East Harlem; and the 103rd Precinct, in Jamaica, Queens. Also selected was Police Service Area 2, which encompasses public housing in Brownsville and East New York.
Bratton briefed the police unions before Thursday’s announcement, but Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch said the pilot “is part of our challenge to Judge Scheindlin’s decision.”
“Police officers have nothing to hide, but there are many unanswered questions,” he added.
Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said Bratton is making the right move by using the pilot to figure out aspects of the technology that are helpful and ones that are not. He said, for instance, that it’s not clear whether cops would be offered protection if private conversations between partners are captured on audio.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the Floyd suit, faulted the NYPD for making a “unilateral decision” and not following Scheindlin’s request for a “collaborative process” that included plaintiffs in the case.
“This kind of unilateral decision on the part of the NYPD follows the non-transparent, go-it-alone approach to police reform we saw with the prior NYPD and mayoral administration,” the organization said in a statement on its website.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said body cameras “ought to be a win-win for both the police and the communities they serve, as long as their use is limited to police interactions and addressing complaints of abuse or wrongdoing.”
“The NYPD has a long history of engaging in surveillance of innocent New Yorkers, and body cameras can’t become yet another tool for massive police surveillance,” she added.
Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, was also somewhat suspicious — though she did not disapprove of the program in theory.
“You know, with today’s technology they can alter whatever they want,” said Carr, 65, whose son died after a cop put him into what appeared to be a chokehold — a move banned under NYPD protocol.
“We’re going to have to wait and see,” she added. “It’s a step in the right direction, if they’re used correctly.”
With Thomas Tracy