August 14, 2013

NYC officials cool to judge's order for police body cameras

A federal judge ordered a pilot program of the cameras and other major reforms to the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy this week.

By Colleen Long / The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Police officers around the country have been able to protect themselves against citizen complaints by wearing tiny body cameras, but a federal judge's plan to force some New York officers to start wearing the devices has angered the city's mayor and police unions.

click image to enlarge

A video camera worn by some officers in Oakland, Calif., is shown in this 2011 photo. A judge who slammed New York City's stop-and-frisk program as discriminatory has suggested a pilot program in which officers wear cameras on their uniforms to record street encounters.


Mayor Michael Bloomberg criticized the cameras as unnecessary for the 35,000-officer department, while police reform advocates have cautiously agreed to the idea in theory – with some caveats. And people on both sides have raised privacy concerns in a city that already has thousands of public and private cameras recording people.

"It needs to be examined further, which is why a test program is the right idea," said Baher Azmy, legal director of the civil liberties group Center for Constitutional Rights.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered a pilot program of the cameras and other major reforms to the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy this week, after she found the NYPD intentionally discriminated against minorities.

Bloomberg called the cameras no real solution and vowed to appeal, which likely means no changes are imminent.

"It would be a nightmare," he said. "Cameras don't exactly work that way. Camera on the lapel or the hat of the police officer — he's turned the right way, he didn't turn the right way, 'my God, he deliberately did it.'"

There have been nearly 5 million stops in the past decade, mostly black and Hispanic men. About half the people who are stopped are subject only to questioning; others have a bag or backpack searched, and sometimes police conduct a full pat-down.

Only 10 percent of the stops result in an arrest; a weapon is recovered only a fraction of the time. A discrimination lawsuit filed in 2004 by four men, all minorities, became a class-action case, and Scheindlin presided over a 10-week bench trial this year.

The idea for body cameras came up almost by accident during testimony, when the city's own policing expert raised it as something other cities use to determine whether police interact properly with the public. The judge seized on it.

"It would solve a lot of problems," she said during trial. "Everybody would know exactly what occurred. It would be easy to review it. The officer would be aware he's on tape."

A yearlong pilot program in Rialto, Calif., ended in February, and researchers there found the number of use-of-force incidents dropped by half. The city of about 100,000 also had significantly fewer public complaints about police, dropping from 28 to just three.

In Arizona, Scottsdale police began using 10 body cameras about two months ago as the agency looks into equipping all of its roughly 250 patrol officers with the devices.

"We're always being photographed out there, videoed by cellphone cameras, and we'd prefer, if possible, to have our own video of what happened," Sgt. Mark Clark said.

Some officers were initially reluctant to use the cameras, Clark said, but an incident a few weeks ago changed several minds. Cameras revealed that a person who filed a complaint against a motorcycle patrol officer made up the story.

"We showed the person the video and they said, 'Um, I guess I must have remembered it wrong,'" Clark said.

Phoenix police also are testing out the cameras with about 50 of its roughly 1,400 patrol officers as part of a study with Arizona State University.

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