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Are Police Body Cameras Failing To Provide Transparency And Accountability?

Body-worn cameras were adopted by police departments across the country in the wake of widespread Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, sparked when Michael Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, Mo. As policymakers rushed to equip the police with cameras, they often failed to grapple with a fundamental question: Who would control the footage? Instead, they defaulted to leaving police departments, including New York’s, with the power to decide what is recorded, who can see it, and when. In turn, departments across the country have routinely delayed releasing footage, released only partial or redacted video, or refused to release it at all, according to the New York Times. They have frequently failed to discipline or fire officers when body cameras document abuse and have kept footage from the agencies charged with investigating police misconduct. And while the public had little access to footage, the police had privileged access: Officers who were the subjects of complaints would be allowed to watch the footage before having to give any statements, something that could allow them to tailor their accounts to the video.

The secrecy undercuts the deterrent effect on officer behavior that many had presumed body cameras would produce. There have been 28 shootings of civilians so far this year by New York officers, but the department has released footage in just seven of these cases, and has not done so in any of the last 16. Asked about the department’s limited release of footage, a spokesperson pointed to a caveat, contained in an internal order, that footage can be withheld because of laws or department policy. “The N.Y.P.D. remains wholly committed to its policy of releasing such recordings as quickly and responsibly as circumstances and the law dictate,” the spokesperson wrote. “Though transparency is of the utmost importance, so too is the Police Department’s commitment to preserving privacy rights.” Jeff Schlanger, a former New York deputy commissioner who had an oversight role during the implementation of body-worn cameras and left the department in 2021, believes that the police have often failed to use the cameras for accountability and that political leaders need to do more. “Mayors, City Council members, all locally elected officials,” he says, “should be losing sleep over the lack of meaningful independent oversight of the police.”


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