Mayor De Blasio recently announced he’s speeding up a plan to equip the NYPD with body cameras. A couple thousand are already in use, but he wants all patrol officers to wear cameras by the end of this year – that’s a year earlier than planned.
The $20 million program was ordered by a federal judge in 2013, after finding that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics were targeting minorities. But advocates are asking whether moving the plan faster going to help.
Some NYPD officers now patrol the streets with a new device on their uniform: a camera to record their interactions with civilians. And it’s because of this kind of story:
“Right here, this is where it all happened. He was told that he had his break light out, and the officer was being very aggressive,” said Andrea Colon, a 17-year-old high school student, and community organizer with the Rockaway Youth Task Force.
We’re on Beach Channel Drive, in front of a car wash. It’s a typical New York neighborhood, with a deli, a KFC, and a laundromat. Colon says it happened right here.
“And the man who was stopped became sort of defensive, and that’s when the officer, like three officers just came and like tackled him,” said Colon.
Colon was born in Rockaway, but her father came from Puerto Rico, and her mother from Guatemala. She says like her, many members of the community are people of color. But the officers who patrol the streets are white, and that creates tension.
“Of course this was a black man, and it just shows the racism honestly, like it’s deep rooted racism, and it shouldn’t be happening in our community, our police should protect us, we shouldn’t be afraid of them,” said Colon.
And according to mayor Bill De Blasio, that’s where body cameras come in, to establish transparency, accountability, and trust between police officers and the communities they patrol. But expensive high tech body cameras are not a silver bullet. That’s according to Seth Stoughton. He teaches law at the University of South Carolina, and, he’s a former cop.
“Just having body cameras is not what matters. What matters is how you use the body cameras,” said Stoughton.
Nikita Price works with the Homeless in Harlem. He agrees it’s not just cameras that matter. He says the rules for when officers turn their cameras on are also a problem. They don’t make recording mandatory for all encounters, only the violent ones. But often, seemingly ordinary encounters can escalate.
“It is the policy. I think, if you’re gonna stop a person in the street, if you’re gonna pull over, get out of your van and say ‘Scuse me, hey, stop!’ your camera should be on, your camera should be on,” said Price.
Price says another problem is there are no strict rules about when footage should be released to the public.
“Once an officer does engage in turning on the camera, they have access to that footage, and we don’t,” said Price.
Which brings us back to the trust issue. Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission – a criminal justice advocacy group, says it’s crucial the NYPD releases body camera footage.
“When video exists, and it’s held back from the public, the public gets suspicious, and I understand that, so I think it’s the imperative here to get the videos out as soon as possible,” said Aborn.
Since the beginning of the program in April, the NYPD has only released 3 videos, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. So for Seth Stoughton, law professor and former police officer, speeding up the roll out of the body cameras is not a wise decision. He says the NYPD should wait for the results of the one year pilot program.
Until you test this equipment in your local conditions, using your own policies and procedures, you’re not going to know what effect these cameras are going to have. You might hope that they have a particular effect, but hoping isn’t knowing,” said Stoughton.
The NYPD says it will issue between 800 to 2,000 more every month until the end of this year. Police officers will be wearing 18,000 body cameras.