The NYPD’s selective release of police body-camera videos violates the civil rights of officers and must stop, leaders of the union for the department’s rank-and file cops said Tuesday in announcing a lawsuit to end the practice.
Releasing the images is a violation of section 50-a of the state’s civil rights law because the body camera videos are considered police personnel records exempt from disclosure, according to a statement by the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.
The union, which represents about 22,000 police officers, also said the release of the videos, which occurred three times last year in cases of police shootings, is done in an inconsistent and arbitrary way.
“This sets a dangerous precedent, not only for police officers but also the district attorneys,” said PBA president Patrick Lynch. “It jeopardizes the privacy rights of citizens who are captured in police videos . . . and should concern others such as good government advocates and all New Yorkers.”
The lawsuit against the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio was filed Tuesday in Manhattan State Supreme Court, a PBA spokesman said. The suit is seeking a determination by the court that release of the videos is unlawful and must stop unless permitted by a court order.
In a statement, the NYPD defended its body-camera footage policy.
“The Police Commissioner has spoken, repeatedly, on the need for increased transparency in how we police,” said NYPD spokesman Peter Donald. “The release of body camera footage, when possible, is an important extension of that commitment.”
A city official who didn’t want to be named said the true intent of section 50-a “has always been to block the release of disciplinary records that could be used in the context of litigation for ‘abusive exploitation’ and to prevent the release of sensitive personnel records that could be used in litigation for the purposes of harassing or embarrassing officers.”
After a period of experimentation, the NYPD began wider distribution of body cameras to officers in April. In the most recent police labor contract, the union and the city agreed that cameras would be given to the entire patrol force by 2020. Police Commissioner James O’Neill has said that the department would release videos on a selective basis.
In its court filing, the PBA cited three cases in 2017 in which body camera videos were publicly released. In two of the cases cops shot and killed suspects.
The most recent release, on Nov. 29, 2017, showed cops confronting and fatally shooting a man in a Bronx facility for the mentally ill after he stabbed two security guards and stepped toward the officers with a 4-inch steak knife, the court papers stated.
The PBA lawsuit is another episode in the controversy surrounding section 50-a, a law that O’Neill and de Blasio have said they want to change to allow for more disclosure of material in police files.