Not One New York Police Officer Has a Body Camera
By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
The New York Police Department once seemed poised to be an early adopter of body cameras. A federal judge thought the technology could curb unwarranted stops and searches of black and Hispanic men. So in 2013, after finding the department’s stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional, the judge ordered that a pilot program be established in at least five precincts.
Three years later, not one of the department’s approximately 35,800 officers is wearing a body camera, even as the devices have become a staple for officers elsewhere.
The Police Department says it is committed to outfitting officers with body cameras, and on Monday said that a company had been chosen to supply up to 5,000 over the next five years. But a contract has yet to be signed, and a rollout of the cameras would not begin for months.
The halting pace of its effort is striking for an agency that has pledged to make itself a model of technology-driven policing and a leader in improving police-community relations.
Since the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. and the deaths of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Walter Scott in South Carolina, many police departments have moved to deploy the body-worn cameras. Police forces in Chicago; Houston; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington each have at least 500 officers wearing the devices.
The video can provide a useful, if often incomplete, record of what occurred during arrests, violent encounters or police shootings. Such footage, along with video captured on bystanders’ smartphones, and on the dashboard cameras in police vehicles in many jurisdictions, is driving a debate — across the country and in the policing profession itself — over whether some officers are too quick to open fire, and, if so, why that might be the case.
The recent shooting of a black man by the police in Charlotte, N.C.,portions of which were recorded by body cameras, has brought renewed attention to the practices of police departments when it comes to how, or even whether, they record their encounters with civilians.
Envisioned as a tool to bolster police accountability, body cameras have faced pockets of resistance, from both police reform advocates and some law enforcement agencies and state legislatures. Reform advocates have cautioned that cameras could provide the police with new methods of surveillance that might erode personal privacy, while some law enforcement agencies have balked at the cost of storing so much data, and some states have added restrictions on public access to the footage.
In North Carolina, where the Charlotte police initially declined to release footage of the recent shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a new law that went into effect this month limits release of police camera footage to the general public.
The fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., was recorded by a police dashboard camera and a camera in a police helicopter; footage from both was released to the public. The officer who shot Mr. Crutcher has been charged with manslaughter.
The New York department conducted a pilot program involving 54 officers that ended in March. J. Peter Donald, a spokesman for the agency, said one of the lessons was that “we needed better policy guidance and training for officers on body cameras.” The project, however, did not even satisfy the federal court order calling for a robust pilot program.
Even dashboard cameras, which have become standard in many departments, are not used in the vast majority of the New York Police Department’s patrol vehicles.
Police officials have attributed the delays to the city’s procurement process and the department’s need to carefully select the right equipment before proceeding on a larger scale.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, with the New York City police commissioner, William J. Bratton, left, and the city’s public advocate, Letitia James, announcing a pilot program putting body-worn cameras on police officers in 2014. CreditOzier Muhammad/The New York Times
At a news conference on Monday, city officials announced that the company chosen to supply the 5,000 cameras is Vievu L.L.C. of Seattle.
“There are still things that have to be worked through,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “But I want to be very clear that they are coming.”
The rules regarding what officers record, and when, and who outside the department will have access to the footage, have yet to be made final.
A member of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat, said he believed the “glacial pace” reflected a lack of enthusiasm. “What do you expect to happen when the N.Y.P.D. sets the terms and the pace of police reform?” Councilman Torres said in an interview. “I have trouble imagining it’s for lack of capacity,” he said of the delays. “I suspect it’s for lack of will.”
The mayor said the department has been acting prudently. “We’ve been very, very clear about the complication and the challenges of doing this in the biggest city in the country with the biggest police force, by far, in the country,” Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, said at the news conference. “So we’re going be purposeful about getting it right. Once we start down the road, we have to make sure that we are getting it right.”
The timetable puts the New York agency behind a number of other big city departments.
The Chicago Police Department has 2,000 body cameras in use. The Los Angeles Police Department has so far deployed 1,160. In Charlotte, most of the police force is outfitted with body cameras.
In New Jersey, the State Police have a pilot program involving more than a 100 cameras, though many troopers also have a dashboard camera in their cars. The Newark Police Department, which was placed under federal supervision earlier this year after a Justice Department investigation, is not using body-worn cameras.
New York City and New York State have been slower than many jurisdictions in putting in place not only the use of body cameras but also some other criminal justice reforms.
And when it comes to transparency regarding officer misconduct, New York City is becoming more secretive. The city has filed a legal appeal to prevent the release of a summary of disciplinary records involving Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island officer who applied the fatal chokehold to Mr. Garner in 2014. This year it stopped providing reporters with notification of suspensions and other significant disciplinary actions against officers.
The use of body-worn cameras by the police, regarded as a novelty just a few years ago, has quickly grown in acceptance.
The ubiquity of cellphone videos taken of police encounters with the public helped convince departments that they, too, should be recording. So has an aggressive marketing push by companies that produce the body-worn cameras, particularly Taser International, whose Axon brand cameras have, according to Taser, been bought by 3,500 police agencies nationwide.
While body-worn cameras were quickly hailed as a tool to foster police accountability, some civil rights activists and technology experts say they are more concerned with the policies that police departments develop regarding use of the cameras than the speed with which officers start wearing them.
“I think the view has been shifting,” said Harlan Yu, who works for Upturn, a technology consultancy, and who was involved in the compilation of a comprehensive review of police departments’ policies. “Many of the groups I work with don’t see body cameras as a silver bullet for the problems we’re seeing in our communities when it comes to policing.”
The devices raise privacy questions. Among them: Should police officers keep recording inside homes, where the expectation of privacy is greatest, along with the potential for unwarranted intrusions?
Mr. Yu noted that very few departments had policies that clearly provided a right to view any body camera footage of a police encounter to those that allege misconduct. The departments in Las Vegas and Washington were exceptions; both had clear procedures in place for individuals to review footage pertaining to the police, he said.