In January, just months after the New York Police Department released body camera footage of a police shooting for the first time, the largest New York police union sued the city in an attempt to ban footage from being released in the future without a court order. Now, a media coalition is trying to intervene in the case, potentially joining the de Blasio administration in its fight against a state law frequently used to shield police records from public view.
The Reporters Committee for Press Freedom filed a motion to intervene on Thursday, attempting to become a party to the suit in the New York State Supreme Court. Thirteen major media organizations, including The New York Times Company, BuzzFeed, and Gizmodo Media Group, which includes Splinter, also signed on.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association sued Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill in January, claiming that de Blasio and the police department had “arbitrarily and illegally” released footage of three police shootings from 2017, the first year of the body cam program.
The PBA argued that information from the devices is covered by Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, which allows police departments to keep “all personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” confidential.
The law was initially enacted in 1976 to protect officers during cross examination by defense attorneys. But it’s been applied to cover internal reports of poor performance or investigations into police abuse. In 2010, for example, a federal magistrate on Long Island used the law to block the release of an internal affairs report suggesting local police failed to respond to multiple complaints of domestic abuse by a woman, Jo’Anna Bird, who was eventually tortured and killed by her ex-boyfriend.
The current case against de Blasio and the NYPD will likely hinge on whether the court similarly deems body cam footage a personnel record. The program was unveiled to improve accountability in the wake of stop-and-frisk policies, which were deemed unconstitutional. A New York City Department of Investigation report in January found that the nation’s largest police depart continues to under-report how often it uses force against New Yorkers.
“Police body cameras can only help foster transparency and accountability if the press and public are able to access and report on footage from them,” Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement. “Claiming these videos cannot be disclosed is counter to the purpose of this technology: Empowering public oversight to help establish trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”
Read RCFP’s full memo in support of the motion to intervene: