When a New York City police officer shoots a civilian, should the public see video of the shooting captured on police body cameras? Or should that footage be shielded the same way that performance evaluations and disciplinary actions are?
The issue is at the heart of a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan by the city’s largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. As the city moves ahead with its plan to equip all patrol officers with body cameras by the end of 2019, the union, which represents nearly two-thirds of the city’s 36,000 officers, is seeking to stop the Police Department from releasing the resulting footage without a court order.
The Police Department considers releasing body camera video of “critical incidents,” like police shootings, on a case-by-case basis. The police commissioner makes the final decision after consulting with the district attorney in the borough where the shooting took place.
So far, the Police Department, under Commissioner James P. O’Neill, has released edited footage of three police shootings, including two that were fatal. But in the lawsuit, union lawyers argue that the videos — raw or edited — are personnel records shielded from public disclosure by Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, a statute that also protects officers’ performance evaluations and disciplinary records.