A New York appeals court ruled on Wednesday that body camera footage worn by NYPD must be available for public viewing, equating it to arrest reports and court summonses, rather than personnel records as police attorneys argued.
“We find that given its nature and use, the body-worn-camera footage at issue is not a personnel record covered by the confidentiality and disclosure requirements of [New York law],” the ruling reads. “The purpose of body-worn-camera footage is for use in the service of other key objectives of [the law], such as transparency, accountability and public trust-building.”
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) of the City of New York argued in the case that allowing members of the public to see body camera footage violates the privacy of police officers, and wanted to be able to block Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to see the footage like they can other personal documents. The judge did too, calling these concerns “valid,” but worried that blocking body camera footage could be a slippery slope to blocking other police records.
“Otherwise, that could sweep into the purview of many police records that are an expected or required part of investigations or performance evaluations [and are visible to the public],” the ruling reads.
Daniel Lawrence, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, which studies the effects of body camera programs across America, likewise voiced concerns, but about the people on the opposite end of the camera as well.
“I think the release to the public is a bit of an overstep, but in the right direction,” Lawrence said. “They should be accessible to the public, but there should also be controls in place to protect the privacy and due process rights of survivors or defendants.”
Ultimately, both Lawrence and the court agreed, while body-worn cameras may not have any huge direct effects on how police act in the field, the increased accountability helps communities trust their police more, and even make cops’ jobs easier in the long run.
“Transparency has been deeply linked to improving trust in the department’s practices and activities,” Lawrence said. “When that trust is increased there is an increased view of police legitimacy, and that’s the degree that the public accepts or voluntarily complies with decisions and rules from an authority figure.”
Even so, the PBA disagreed, promising to “assess” the possibility of appealing the decision.
“We believe that the court’s decision is wrong, that it will have a negative impact on public safety and on the safety of our members,” PBA president Patrick Lynch said in a statement.