NY1 gets first glimpse of NYPD body camera footage

For two years, NY1 has been fighting in court to get a glimpse at videos from the NYPD’s body camera program. We now have the first tapes, with more to come soon. NY1's Courtney Gross filed the following report.

"Are you Hollywood right now?" It's a phrase you may hear more often as police officers turn into cameramen. 

For the first time, New Yorkers can get a glimpse behind the scenes of the NYPD.

NY1 has obtained 125 videos from the department's body camera pilot program, which ran from December of 2014 through early 2016.

Just 54 officers in a handful of precincts wore cameras, testing the technology.

It's an experiment that will soon be rolled out to 22,000 officers on patrol by the end of 2019.

NY1 requested this footage back in 2015 through the state's Freedom of Information law. More than two years later and a protracted battle in court, NY1 has finally seen the first tapes, all seemingly routine police work. 

In one tape, officers respond to a radio call for an alleged assault in Queens. They leave the scene and check out an address nearby.

The NYPD declined to discuss this footage with NY1. So we will let the video speak for itself.

In the video, you can hear officers saying, "People moving around upstairs. They might be coming down." No one does.

An officer checks out the back door. You can see him in the distance take out his gun.

"There is definitely people upstairs," someone is heard saying.

Still no one answers.

"Come out, come out wherever you are," someone says.

Moments later, the video ends.

"Guy ain't coming out," someone says.

Routine police work, says former NYPD sergeant Joseph Giacalone.

"He does what he is trained to do, keeps the gun pointed straight down," Giacalone said.

NY1 showed some of the footage to Giacalone. He retired from the NYPD in 2012. He now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

"There is very little exciting sometimes in policing," Giacalone said. "It's not like television. You are sitting around a lot. You'll watch videos where they get a call and they have nothing. They didn't have the right apartment number."

Something similar happens in footage from January 22, 2015. In it, you can hear two people talking. One says, "You got the right apartment number?" An officer says "23 or 26." The first person says, "It can't be a 23 or a 26."

More than a half dozen officers respond to a call at one apartment building. They find nothing.

"I do see a couple of instances where the cops can use some better tactics," Giacalone said. "So when they walk into the one location and they are looking for somebody apparently, you can see the cop with the camera, he looks up to someone at the landing and then they don't go up there right away. You got to clear that entire thing first, especially if you have all those cops mulling around there. Because if there is a bad guy there, he is going to have the high ground, and that's not something you ever want."

The videos show the fundamentals of police work at the NYPD, like what’s known as a vertical patrol. Police patrol from the roof to the bottom floor of a public housing development, going step by step, floor by floor.

Take another video responding to a call for underage drinking. Two officers enter this Mexican restaurant in East Harlem. They don't stay longer than a minute.

Mundane, perhaps, but necessary. All part of the job of lowering crime and rooting out bad actors.

Another take, a search for a perpetrator in the basement of a bodega. One officer draws his weapon. No one is there.

"The old saying in policing, it's seven hours of sheer boredom and one hour of sheer terror," Giacalone said.

Of course, the whole point of the body camera program is to capture the terror, not necessarily the boredom.

This footage comes from the very early stages of the program, at a point when police departments across the country were slapping cameras on officers, arguing it would solve the rift between the police and the community. 

It was a reaction to the high-profile shootings of unarmed black men across the country.

But it's a policing tool, too.

For the first time, body camera footage from the pilot program was used as evidence in a criminal trial in Queens. Those three men on trial were found guilty of robbery and burglary last month. They face decades in prison. 

Outside of the courtroom, the public has not seen any of the footage until now. Nor have we heard much about the program's impact or success.

In fact, a professor at New York University who helped evaluate it has signed a confidentiality agreement. He cannot discuss it.

"It was our understanding that the purpose of that pre-pilot was to test different technology, to see if the cameras were easy to use or what technological obstacles that there were. That, in theory, would inform the cameras they would use for the court ordered pilot," said Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "I am not sure what they learned because they never provided us with any results from that pilot."

Charney was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against the NYPD's practice of stop-and-frisk. That lawsuit spurred the NYPD to get body cameras. 

He now has concerns over how the public, those in the videos themselves, will access all of that footage.

"If the goal of the cameras is to increase transparency and to show people, you know, this is what police are doing, this is how they are doing their work, you shouldn't make it so difficult for them to see those videos," Charney said.

NY1 is expected to get more body camera video this summer. Already, the NYPD is saying it will not hand over footage that is the subject of a Civilian Complaint Review Board or internal affairs investigations, as well as footage that could interfere with a pending criminal investigation.

It means the footage the public will see, at least for now, may only be routine police work. Or perhaps a coffee break of sorts.

The tours will continue. Footage will stack up. And these officers will keep rolling.

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