Police in New York have been fighting to block the release of raw, unedited body-worn camera footage by claiming that the footage is a “personnel record” used for performance evaluations and therefore confidential under the Civil Rights Law. However, in a decision released last month, the First Department Appellate Division rejected this theory, which had been put forward by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. In PBA v. DeBlasio, et al., the Appellate Division held that privacy interests of police officers do not transform the bodycam footage into “personnel records” and therefore the footage must generally be released under the Freedom of Information Law.
April 2017 marked the beginning of the NYPD’s body-worn camera program, which outfitted 1,300 police officers across 20 precincts with body cameras. The stated purpose of the program was to document the public’s interaction with police and establish a clear record of those encounters, as well as to provide evidence in civil or criminal proceedings. That purpose was quickly tested on September 6, 2017, when police responded to a report of a Bronx man acting erratically in his apartment. The police responded for a “wellness check” that escalated into a 15-minute standoff ending with the shooting and death of Miguel Richards at the hands of NYPD Officers, all of whom were equipped with body-worn cameras. Our office, along with the Law Offices of Daniel A. McGuinness, P.C., represents Mr. Richards’s family in a lawsuit against the City and the individual police officers.
At first, the City released an edited version of the footage, offering the public a rare glimpse into the police’s interactions with the citizenry. But Miguel Richards’ parents wanted more than the partial, self-serving narrative offered by the cops. They demanded a complete picture of the events that led to the death of their son.
The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association cried foul, claiming that bodycam footage falls under Civil Rights Law § 50-a, which deems materials in an officer’s personnel file confidential and not subject to review.
Section 50-a protections have been a powerful tool for the NYPD in past cases where they wished to maintain the secrecy of their decision-making process. It operates as a shield, hiding from public access any record that can be used to evaluate the performance of a police officer. In New York Civil Liberties Union v. New York City Police Department, the Court of Appeals confirmed the power of § 50-a by holding that decisions from internal NYPD disciplinary hearings fall within the definition of § 50-a and are therefore protected from disclosure. The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association argued that bodycam footage fell within the definition of “personnel record” because it would be used to evaluate the performance of officers, and it should not be disclosed.
The First Department disagreed.
While the court recognized that the footage can be used for performance evaluation purposes, that alone is not reason enough to prohibit the footage’s release. Instead, the court reiterated that the real function of the NYPD’s program “is for use in the service of other key objectives of the program, such as transparency, accountability, and public trust-building.”
Two days after the First Department ruled on the public’s right to view unedited body-worn camera footage, arguments for the release of more footage in the Miguel Richards case took place. Mr. Richards’ case is unique in that it marks the first ever release of body-worn camera footage from the NYPD. The way that the NYPD released the footage documenting the final moments of Mr. Richards’ life was released was even more strange: without the consent of a single member of Miguel’s family, the police posted on YouTube the edited footage of Miguel in his apartment, getting shot. Ironically enough, the NYPD is now arguing that the “privacy concerns” of witnesses, officers, and the Richards family alike all weigh against the release of the unedited footage. Before the release of the video, the NYPD was uninterested in the Richards family and their “privacy concerns.” Now that advocacy groups are pushing for release, the police are suddenly worried about their privacy — but the Richards family has come out and stated in an affidavit filed with the court that they are ready to sacrifice their privacy for the truth.
Whether the family of Miguel Richards will ever get a full and clear accounting of what happened on that September afternoon remains to be seen. However, there is hope that courts are becoming more open to drawing back the curtain that has shrouded the way police officers carry out their daily duties. Full disclosure of the videos, rather than the NYPD edited version, will bring the Richards family a step closer to closure.
****This post was guest-written by our legal intern, Joseph Nielsen, a student at Brooklyn Law School.****