Do the Police Have to Use Body-Worn Cameras?
Body-worn cameras have arguably been one of the most important developments in criminal justice over the last decade. They have given judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the public access to critical information about what happened during any given police encounter.
Although smartphones—which have video cameras—have played an important role in exposing police misconduct over the last 10 years, body-worn cameras are even more transformational for the criminal justice system. When officers are obligated to wear and use them, all police encounters are recorded, so we will always have information about every encounter and don’t have to hope that a citizen was around to record with his or her phone. In addition, with body-worn cameras, defendants can now reliably have proof of police misconduct when the police violate recognized search and seizure laws.
Many large urban police departments use body-worn cameras, and the number of departments using them is increasing. As costs for camera hardware and data storage continue to decrease, more and more police departments will use body-worn cameras, and hopefully, policing will become more fair and accountable.
NYPD Body Camera Program
Using over 24,000 body-worn cameras, the NYPD has the largest body-worn camera program in the United States. The NYPD introduced the program in three stages, and the first stage began in 2017. By 2019, all three stages were completed, and all uniformed officers now wear body-worn cameras.
The NYPD’s stated purpose of requiring body-worn cameras is to visually and audibly record certain interactions between uniformed members of the service and the public for official law enforcement purposes.
When Must the Police Use Body-Worn Cameras?
The NYPD has strict protocols about when and how they must use their body-worn cameras.
At the beginning of each shift, officers must retrieve their body-worn cameras from their docking station. First, they must power on the camera and inspect it to ensure that the battery is charged and the unit is operational. Then, they must position the camera on their clothing (usually on the breast pocket) so that it can optimally capture video footage.
The body-worn cameras used by the NYPD are always recording in standby mode. However, to save data space, the recording is not saved until the officer activates the recording mode by pressing a button on the camera. When an officer presses the record button, the minute leading up to the officer’s press of the button is saved—although without audio. By preserving the minute before the officer presses record, the body-worn cameras help judges, lawyers, and the public assess what happened right before the officer decided to start recording.
NYPD officers are obligated to press the record button in the following situations:
- Responding to a potential active crime in progress;
- Patrolling the interior of New York City Housing Authority buildings;
- Patrolling the interior of privately- owned buildings;
- Interacting with the public when the situation escalates and becomes adversarial;
- Interacting with emotionally disturbed people;
- Interacting with people suspected of criminal activity;
- Searching a person and/or their belongings, vehicle, or home;
- Stopping a motor vehicle, such as when the police suspect driving while intoxicated or vehicular manslaughter;
- Issuing summonses (except for notice of parking violation);
- Using force;
- Removing people from the transit system;
- Contacting sleeping passengers in the transit system; or
- Conducting an arrest.
Beyond these instances when officers must activate their body-worn camera, they may also use their discretion to turn on the camera if they think it is beneficial to record, so long as they don’t record an encounter that they are prohibited from recording. For example, if an alleged domestic violence victim speaks with the police and wants to discuss an incident, even if the police are not responding to an active crime in progress, they have the discretion to activate their cameras because the complainant’s version of events may be helpful to record.
It is important to note that NYPD officers must notify a supervisor if they fail to record one of the events they are obligated to record.
In the event of an emergency that requires prompt action, the police may first deal with the emergency, but they must activate the body-worn camera as soon as it is feasible to do so.
Officers must notify members of the public as soon as possible that they are recording the interaction unless notification would compromise the safety of a person or impede an investigation. Members of the public do not need to consent for the police to activate their body-worn cameras.
The police must deactivate their body-worn cameras once their police action is concluded.
When the Police Cannot Use Body-Worn Cameras
NYPD officers are prohibited from activating their body-worn cameras in certain situations, such as:
- Administrative duties or non-enforcement functions
- Routine activities within department facilities
- Departmental meetings
- Off-duty employment
- Interviewing a current or potential confidential informant
- When operating as an undercover officer
- When interviewing the victim of a sex crime
- Strip searches
- When inside a court facility
- When inside a medical facility
- When attending briefings or tactical discussions
Obtaining Body-Worn Camera Footage
Any person can request body-worn camera footage by filing a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, which can be made here: Home – OpenRecords (nyc.gov)
Prosecutors are also obligated, under C.P.L. 245.20, to provide criminal defendants with all camera footage that is relevant to their case. The defense does not need to make a FOIL request to receive such footage.
The NYPD stores video footage for different lengths of time, depending on the nature of the video. The department retains video footage for the following lengths of time:
- Uncategorized: 18 Months
- Investigative Encounters: 18 Months
- Summonses: 2 Years
- Arrests: 5 Years
- Homicides: Forever
Contact a Criminal Lawyer in NYC Today
If you are charged with a crime and the police did not turn on their cameras as required, an NYC criminal lawyer may be able to use that information to leverage a great outcome for your case. Cody Warner is an experienced NYC criminal defense attorney who can analyze the body-worn camera footage—or lack thereof—to determine the ideal strategy for your case. Contact his office right away.