State lawmakers Tuesday considered whether to weigh in on the rules governing body cameras worn by police officers in a panel discussion that focused heavily on the cost of massive data storage and the taxing nature of sprawling public records requests.
Deputy Police Chief Edward Thompson, who estimated that a full-scale body camera program would cost “tens of millions of dollars,” cautioned members of the New York State Assembly in their New York City hearing room about the logistical difficulties his department has faced in shouldering even the limited pilot program now in place because of federal litigation against the now scaled-back stop-and-frisk policy.
The panel discussion came the day after the federal monitor overseeing the New York City Police Department’s 54-camera pilot program asked for several tweaks to that study, which is set to expand to 1,000 officers by next summer.
New York City’s police officers engage in more than 4 million “citizen encounters” each year, Thompson said. He stressed that the responsibility to store footage from 5,000 body cameras would result in an “unfathomable, vast amount of data.”
But Thompson said he is more concerned about privacy and safety, given that many of the recordings take place on crowded city streets and could capture the identities of crime victims or witnesses.
“On the face of it, the idea of being able to memorialize all citizen encounters via video seems to be beneficial for all parties,” Thompson said in his testimony. “However, these encounters do not occur in a solitary space.”
Though data storage could presumably get less expensive as technology improves, public records requests pose their own threat to already lean legal bureaus within police departments. Thompson said that reviewing body camera footage would require an employee well versed in Freedom of Information Act laws.
If a request was fulfilled, that employee would have to painstakingly redact private information frame by frame from one or more body cameras that recorded several hours of footage, he said.
Despite the many questions raised about the cost and ability of police departments to respond to public records requests, Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said that expansive video data requests would be time consuming and “very expensive” for the requester, too.
The cost-prohibitive nature of large video requests was also raised by New York State Assembly member Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, who emphasized that independent citizens’ review boards would be granted access to the data outside of the realm of public records law. Those boards should play a role in the process of reviewing citizen complaints about police officers, she said.
While several lawmakers on the panel expressed support for cameras, New York State Assembly member Al Graf, a Republican from Holbrook, was more apprehensive, citing several “pitfalls” in the city’s pilot program. For example, Graf said, an officer could be made to decide in a split second whether to turn on their camera or draw their weapon.
“Sometimes I think some of this is a witch hunt,” Graf said before the panel. “I’m a retired cop, I worked with New York City cops. They’re the best cops in the world, but now it’s fashionable to beat up the police, and I have real concerns with that.”
For all the worries cast over cost and funding, Gerald F. Mollen, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said toward the end of the panel discussion that the lawmakers had not yet even taken into consideration how prosecutors would deal with the “immense additional obligations to review, redact and provide disclosure” of the footage recorded by body cameras.
“I hope someone starts to think about how the prosecutors are going to possibly meet their obligations under current statutory law to deal with the disclosure and use of body-worn cameras,” Mollen said.
Lawmakers from the New York State Assembly’s codes, judiciary, and governmental operations committees participated in the panel, which included several hours of testimony from New York City law enforcement officials, open government experts and civil rights advocates.