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Investigation Reveals Body Cams Only Work Properly Without Police Intervention And Following Proper Protocol

The NYPD promised to publish footage of “critical incidents” within 30 days of their occurrence, so far they have only published footage within that time frame twice compared to 380 incidents that match the department's description of a critical incident.

In June 2023, The Associated Press sat in on a discussion about the effectiveness of body camera technology in curbing the use of force violations in police departments across the country. Based on what was presented, less is owed to the technology versus the policy implementation around the footage gathered. 

According to Nancy La Vigne, director of the National Institute of Justice, the research-focused wing of the Justice Department, “These technologies aren’t like a light switch, where you switch it on and all of a sudden you’re getting the desired outcomes. So much rests on policy and implementation.”

ProPublica Editor-At-Large Eric Umansky investigated how the NYPD kept body camera footage after witnessing its officers arrest a group of Black trick-or-treaters for being in the wrong place when the officers failed to arrest a suspect on Halloween night in 2019. Umansky contacted the NYPD press office the next day, and they proceeded to tell him everything he witnessed the night before never happened. Umansky continued to investigate not only the NYPD’s reticence around sharing its body cam footage but also that of departments nationwide.

The investigation culminated in a joint study with The New York Times, published in December 2023. Though departments often have accountability statements, which the NYPD enacted after the murder of George Floyd, they often fail to follow them. The NYPD promised to publish footage of “critical incidents” within 30 days of their occurrence; so far, they have only published footage within that time frame twice, compared to 380 incidents that match the department’s description of a critical incident. A spokesperson for the department explained this discrepancy was due to an internal order.

“The NYPD remains wholly committed to its policy of releasing such recordings as quickly and responsibly as circumstances and the law dictate,” the spokesperson wrote at the time. “Though transparency is of the utmost importance, so too is the Police Department’s commitment to preserving privacy rights.”

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and professor at South Carolina’s Joseph F. Rice School of Law, told ProPublica that technology alone would not solve the problem of racial disparities in police use of force violations, saying, “Dash cams were supposed to solve racial profiling. Tasers and pepper spray were supposed to solve undue force. We have this real, almost pathological draw to ‘silver bullet’ syndrome. And I say that as a supporter of body-worn cameras.”

Stoughton added, “We just said to police departments: ‘Here’s this tool. Figure out how you would like to use it.’ It shouldn’t be a surprise that they’re going to use it in a way that most benefits them.”

The body cam debate heightened with the Minneapolis Police Department and its protection of Derek Chauvin in 2017, the officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes in 2020, killing him. Chauvin employed a similar tactic against a Black woman who had been handcuffed, slamming the woman onto the ground and kneeling on her neck for almost five minutes.

Three months after that incident, Chauvin struck a 14-year-old Black child in the head with his police-issued flashlight, choked him and held him against a wall. Chauvin also pressed his knee into the child’s neck for nearly 15 minutes, which prompted the boy’s mother to plead with the officer not to kill him. Neither incident was voluntarily released by the department, only coming out when a judge ordered them released in April 2023. Robert Bennett, a lawyer who represented both of Chauvin’s victims in these incidents, said he should have been fired in 2017.

“Chauvin should have been fired in 2017,” Bennett said. He maintained that if police had fired Chauvin, “the city never burns. We’d have a downtown still. It’s a parade of horribles. All to keep something secret.”

Compounding these problems, civilian review boards, touted as solutions to the lack of police oversight, have little to no actual power. In New York, the police commissioner holds the ultimate trump card; the police can just take any case they want back from the civilian review board. Twenty-one videos captured precisely what transpired that night, but due to the interference of the NYPD, none of them were ever released to the public. In the case of the incident from Halloween, even though the citizen review board found multiple instances of officer misconduct, it was buried by the commissioner. Despite an officer hitting the alleged suspect they were pursuing with a car, another is pointing a firearm at one of the bystanders they arrested and having no jurisdiction to arrest the bystanders, as well as recommendations from the citizen review board that five officers, which included a precinct commander, face disciplinary trials.

According to an NYPD spokesperson, “As per a memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and the CCRB, the Police Commissioner is authorized to retain cases in limited circumstances.”

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