Civil Rights Lawyers File Challenge To Stall 'Murky' NYPD Body Camera Pilot

April 20, 2017
Emma Whitford

New NYPD guidelines will hobble a pilot program intended to test the effectiveness of body cameras in holding police officers accountable for unjustified street stops and other abuses of power, according to civil rights attorneys and community groups. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) announced Thursday that it is challenging the guidelines in court, on the grounds that they fail to address a court order to collect an "objective record of stop-and-frisks" and encourage "lawful and respectful interactions" between cops and civilians.

CCR represented plaintiffs in the seminal 2013 case Floyd v. City of New York, which found the NYPD's implementation of stop-and-frisk unconstitutional and ordered a body camera pilot as a remedy. The NYPD confirmed last week that it plans to start implementing the 1,200-camera pilot before the end of the month, starting with 50 beat cops in Manhattan's 34th Precinct, covering Washington Heights and Inwood.

Peter Zimroth, the court-appointed federal NYPD monitor, submitted a memo last week asking Judge Analisa Torres to implement the pilot without any additional input. But civil rights attorneys and community groups are particularly concerned that police will not be required to record every investigative encounter with the public under the draft guidelines. Stop-and-frisks and traffic stops will be mandatory, for example, but many sidewalk interactions will not.

"Really the purpose of a pilot is to test something out and see, is this feasible?" said Darius Charney, a staff attorney at CCR. "Did it give us important information? To cut that off in the beginning is a huge mistake."

Communities United for Police Reform filed a briefing in support of CCR on Thursday, cosigned by dozens of organizations whose members say they are directly impacted by stop-and-frisk and other abusive policing tactics.

CCR argues that so-called "level one" police interactions, when an officer stops a civilian on the street to ask her a basic question like her name or where she is headed, make up the majority of police-civilian interactions and can escalate quickly. Therefore, they should not be excluded.

Additionally, distinctions between the four levels of encounter—question, question based on suspicion of a crime, stop-and-frisk, arrest—are "murky" and should not be left up to the officer's discretion.

"I think it's important to understand that there is such a nebulous space in between what is appropriate at each level," said Lurie Daniel Favors, general counsel for the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College. "[If] the legal minds that are behind this organizing are not able to delineate, I think that indicates that it's too much of a burden on police officers to expect that they could be able to make those determinations in the heat of the moment."

CCR is also concerned that police will have access to camera footage before filing incident reports, while civilians will have to request footage through the onerous Freedom of Information Law process.

The NYPD's body camera guidance includes input from community and police surveys conducted last summer, but CCR argues members should be able to weigh in on the final recommendations before they go into effect.

Some grassroots anti-police violence groups would sooner see the NYPD drop the pilot altogether, citing surveillance concerns. Shelby Chestnut, director of community organizing at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, argued Thursday that these concerns could be addressed if the court agrees to stall the pilot.

"It would be troubling and problematic to the extreme to allow reform such as body cameras to become tools that the police can use to further engage in harmful practices against our community," Daniel Favors added. "It's important that we not just implement a policy, but the right policy."

Mayor de Blasio recently pledged to outfit all patrol officers with body cameras by 2019. "I had extensive discussions with the leadership of the NYPD and with our legal folks about how we would put together [the body camera] policy and I approved it before it was announced," he told reporters last week, adding, "It is something that is going to evolve."

No court date has been set to review this week's filings, according to CCR. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


Topics: Police Body-Worn Cameras