From Ferguson to Staten Island, police officers have been caught on camera clashing with civilians. Since these tragic incidents of violence, officials across the country are latching on to the idea of police body cameras as a way to solve the problem—but with cameras comes a whole host of other challenges. NY1's Courtney Gross filed this in depth report on what the NYPD is doing.
A handful of New York's Finest have a new routine at the 23rd police precinct in East Harlem.
"So now what I am going to do is take the camera and the microphone unit and I am going to place it in the docking station," says Officer Brian Magooglaghan.
He is one of 54 officers testing out body worn cameras at the NYPD, out of a 35,000-strong force.
"So this is a head mounted option for wearing the body camera," Magooglaghan says.
The experiment is about to get a lot bigger.
The city is currently accepting bids from tech companies from across the country to buy up to 5,000 body cameras—at first equipping 1,000 officers across 20 precincts. It's a massive 5-year contract worth millions upon millions of dollars.
The expanded pilot will instantly become one of the largest body camera programs in the country, dwarfing programs in New Orleans, Chicago and Washington D.C.
Top brass at 1 Police Plaza say it may only be the beginning.
"We fully expect, after that period of time, that we will put together the budget proposals to move forward to start equipping thousands of our officers with these devices as quickly as possible," Police Commissioner William Bratton said in December of last year.
It's not as simple as buying the cameras and turning them on, though.
For one, who gets to see all of the footage?
Gross: "Are these videos public records?"
NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Lawrence Byrne: "They are not public records in the sense that because the officer turns the camera on they are now in the public domain. Most of this footage, at least from the pilot camera project and we will see how it goes with the thousand, will not be in the public domain."
We found that out personally. We submitted a Freedom of Information Law request—known as a FOIL—to review five weeks of footage from the first five months of the city's pilot program.
Four months after our initial request, the NYPD told us handing over the tapes would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. They argued the unedited video was exempt from the state's public disclosure law.
If we wanted edited video, it would cost us $36,000.
"We treat that on a request by request basis, consistent with what FOIL permits and what FOIL prohibits, including protecting the privacy of indivuduals, the burden to the department to have to comply with the FOIL request—but we are treating it on a foil request by FOIL request basis," Byrne says.
"We're going into your homes. We are going into your residences. We are going to businesses. We are encountering situations. I think it has to be a lot more specific than some of these blanket releases people are asking for," says Sgt. Joseph Freer.
These types of requests have nearly derailed pilot programs in other cities.
Take Seattle, for example.
The video from a body worn camera from the Seattle Police Department is now posted on youtube. The only reason it got there is thanks to one computer programmer who filed a records request for all of the department's body camera video.
Instead of going to court, the Seattle Police Department decided to post the video online. To address privacy concerns, much of the video is redacted.
Requests for these videos have led to lawsuits across the country.
Other states are looking to legislate the issue, putting laws on the books regulating public access to the footage. In some cases, like South Carolina, states have nearly eliminated any public access to the video.
The opposite is happening in Albany.
"We are dealing with both the concerns about a lack of transparency and concerns raised by civil libertarians and others about protecting privacy," says State Senator Daniel Squadron.
State lawmakers have proposed legislation to ensure body camera footage is accessible under the state's freedom of information law. According to some open records experts, the footage, while not explicitly protected, is already considered a public record
"It seems that the notion should be accountability that is based upon disclosure. If the body camera footage is out of bounds and the public can't see it, the question is: why are we doing this at all?" says Robert Freeman of the Committee on Open Government.
In part, officials from the White House to City Hall, have said the answer to that question is to repair the rift between the community and the police—making police departments across the country more transparent.
At least here in New York, some of the most vocal critics of the NYPD, don't see it that way.
"In terms of who gets to look at the film and the video and the footage, it's really the police officers and the NYPD who has control over it. So it's like—how are they going to have an unbiased approach to the footage if they are the ones that are trying to protect themselves within that?" says Josselyn Atahualpa of the Justice Committee.
Advocates and activists spend one night a week patrolling the streets.
They run towards blinking lights and sirens, videotaping police stops and arrests. From their vantage point, putting a body camera on an officer doesn't put any police practice more into focus.
"We actually believe that body cameras are extremely ineffective when it comes to actually speaking for victims and making sure victims have access to documentation that actually the police control," says Sharmin Hossain of Copwatch.
Even if you don't get to see the videos, the NYPD still has to store it—adding another piece to this complicated program.
As it stands now, it will have to keep the tapes for a year. Many expect that to increase to 18 months.
"The retention issue will be a significant issue when we go to the thousand camera program. How are we going to store all that? How are we going to pay to store all that? The cost of the storage is much more expensive than the cost of the cameras itself," says Byrne.
That's because, potentially, the amount of footage will be enormous.
Industry experts say officers across the country tape about an hour and a half a shift. That multiplies quickly.
NYPD officers work 256 days a year on average, meaning each officer could record 384 hours of video a year. For 1,000 officers, that's 384,000 hours of footage.
Cataloging and storing all of that sensitive material is a massive undertaking. Steve Ward, founder of Vievu, wants the job.
"All you do is you flip this switch down and it starts recording, and you flip with switch up and it stops recording," Ward says.
"We use both encryption and digital signatures to control the security of the video from the camera to the platform to the cloud and then back. So everything is done securely so officers can't alter, delete or edit any videos," Ward says.
Ward is the founder of Vievu, one of the leading body camera companies supplying cameras for departments across the country.
The NYPD is currently testing out his model.
Vievu along with dozens of other companies attended a briefing earlier this summer, looking to apply for the body camera contract.
A contract, which in a few years, could be worth tens of millions of dollars.
A camera alone can cost as much as $800. The NYPD may buy 5,000 to start. Officials average the cost of storage at $1,200 per year per camera. If the program expands to the entire force, the contract will multiply significantly.
"Police have known about these cameras for years. They just had to figure out a way to pay for them. And now that the community is getting involved, they're actually helping with that need. Funding is being enabled by the department of justice and others and it's enabling my market to grow much, much quicker," Ward says.
That's true certainly here in the five boroughs.
NYPD officials anticipate the expansion of its body camera program will happen sometime in 2016.
Leading some, from the NYPD's inspector general to top union officials, wondering whether all of these questions—security, cost and public access—have been answered.
"We think the public needs to be aware that this is going to be expensive," says NYPD Inspector General Phillip Eure.
"I don't think we are prepared. I think this is a major undertaking, and that's no fault on 1PP. There is a great deal of information that needs to be resolved," says Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association.
The NYPD still has a few months to figure it out, and New Yorkers will potentially get used to seeing cameras perched on patrol officers' shoulders—because, for now, this program will keep rolling.
Gross: "Five years from now, will every NYPD officer have a body camera?"
Byrne: "There is a good chance that will happen, but we will have to make sure technologically we can do it and the funds are there to pay for it."