By Michael R. Sisak, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Police body camera footage is subject to public disclosure under New York law, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The Appellate Division panel rejected a police union’s argument that body camera footage constitutes a personnel record and is therefore covered by a state law keeping police personnel records secret.
Body camera video “is more akin to arrest or stop reports, and not records primarily generated for disciplinary and promotional purposes,” the court said. “To hold otherwise would defeat the purpose of the body-worn-camera program to promote increased transparency and public accountability.”
The New York Police Department and police reform advocates welcomed the decision. The city’s largest police union, which sued to block the disclosure of footage, said the court’s decision was “wrong” and that it was considering an appeal.
“This ruling is an important step forward for transparency and affirms what the NYPD believes,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement. “Not only is the public entitled to this information, but this footage overwhelmingly shows just how brave, skilled and dedicated our cops are every single day in service of the people of New York City.”
The Associated Press and other media outlets joined the fight to make police body camera footage public, arguing in court filings that the video is vital to police accountability.
The Legal Aid Society, a public defender group, said the ruling underscored the need for state lawmakers to repeal the law known as 50-A, which currently prevents the release of certain information about officers, such as discipline records.
The law “allows vague interpretation that is repeatedly exploited to serve certain agendas at the harm of our clients and other underserved New Yorkers,” Legal Aid Society lawyer Tina Luongo said.
The officers’ union, the Police Benevolent Association, had argued that making the videos public could lead to an invasion of privacy and threats to the safety of police officers. It also argued that the videos have a personnel function because superiors use them when evaluating officers for promotions.
“We believe that the court’s decision is wrong, that it will have a negative impact on public safety and on the safety of our members. We are reviewing the decision and assessing our options for appeal,” union president Patrick Lynch said in a statement.
The court said the union raised valid concerns about officer safety and privacy, but that a broader interpretation of the law would mean things like arrest reports, summonses, and accident reports would be blocked from public view.
The NYPD released its first body camera footage of a fatal shooting in September 2017. The appeals court halted the release of footage in July while it considered the matter.