The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 13 media organizations are urging a New York intermediate appellate court to affirm a trial court ruling that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association can’t sue to stop New York City from releasing body camera footage.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, filed Oct. 5, the coalition argues that bodycams won’t increase public trust or accountability of police departments unless the public has access to the resulting footage. The New York police officers’ union is arguing the city and police department’s release of bodycam videos is improper because they fall within Section 50-a of a New York’s Civil Rights law — an argument the coalition contends is a misreading of the statute, and, even if correct, would not prevent the discretionary release of footage.
The coalition points out that other police-affiliated organizations have called for the release of bodycam footage. For example, Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, wrote in a 2014 report about law enforcement bodycam programs that with limited exceptions, bodycam footage “should be made available to the public upon request — not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”
The coalition also notes that bodycam footage has produced an abundance of important information in the public interest. For example, such footage was used in an analysis of Oakland police interactions that showed officers tended to be more respectful to white motorists than black ones.
Access to these videos can also be essential in helping news outlets and the public determine what happened in specific situations where there are conflicting reports. In Washington, D.C., bodycam footage showed a man shot by police was carrying a knife after differing accounts about whether he was armed. And in Denver, such footage demonstrated that an officer placed his knee on a suspect’s neck for several minutes even though he claimed it had been on the suspect’s upper shoulders.
In its effort to prevent New York City from releasing bodycam footage, the police union sued the mayor, the police department commissioner, and the New York Police Department. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit but the PBA appealed to the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Department. In its appeal, the PBA argues that because the footage is a protected “personnel record” covered by Section 50-a, it cannot be released to the public without following that law’s specific procedure, which is typically a complicated process.
The coalition explains the PBA’s argument is a faulty understanding of that law, arguing that it “does not exempt from disclosure every record that could be said to concern the conduct of police officers.” A previous trial court decision — Green v. Annucci –– found that Section 50-a did not apply to a correctional facility surveillance video because it had multiple uses.
The Albany County Supreme Court stated that “to hold otherwise would allow every video recording to be held under such exemption, whether that be in a correctional facility … or on a police officer’s bodycam recording.” Such a standard would be the antithesis to the purpose of New York’s Freedom of Information Law, the coalition explains.
Bodycam videos can also fall outside the purview of Section 50-a if they are not the type of subjective, unsubstantiated record the law was designed to address, or if it is unlikely that such videos would be used in an abusive way against police officers.
The coalition’s brief further argues that even if bodycam footage did fall under Section 50-a and even if it could be exempt from disclosure under FOIL, the City still has the right to voluntarily release the videos.
“Like any other exception to FOIL’s mandate of disclosure, a government agency may choose not to invoke Section 50-a,” the coalition argues.
The full coalition brief is available here.