New York, NY – In the wake of growing controversy surrounding police violence, more police departments are equipping their officers with body cameras. However, while police-worn body cameras can bring extra evidence into cases on both sides, they are far from a fix for police brutality. The main obstacle with these cameras is the fact that the footage is still entirely controlled by police departments.
The officer in the field has an opportunity to turn the camera on and off at their discretion. The cops in the office then have a second opportunity to edit the footage or redact parts that might make the officer look bad or incriminate them. Additionally, police departments are often guilty of withholding body camera footage from victim’s families and news organizations.
In one recent case, the NYPD charged a TV news network $36,000 for body camera footage, stating that it would cost them that much to prepare the footage for the network. The network is now suing the police department, stating that the high price undermines the transparency that body cameras have been promised to bring. Charging obnoxious prices for the release of body camera footage is just another trick that the police use to keep their activities from going public.
According to the lawsuit, filed by Time Warner Cable News NY1:
“[NYPD] denied NY1’s request for unedited footage without specifying what material it plans to redact, how much material will be excluded from disclosure, or how the redaction will be performed. Instead, Respondents suggested that they may provide NY1 with edited footage, but only on the condition that NY1 remit $36,000.00, the alleged cost to the NYPD of performing its unidentified redactions.”
The lawsuit also stated that the NYPD’s policy was “counter to both the public policy of openness underlying FOIL (Freedom of Information Law), as well as the purported transparency supposedly fostered by the BWC (body worn camera) program itself.”
The police department claims that their fee is “reasonable” considering the time and effort required to edit the footage.
In a response to NY1, the NYPD sent a letter explaining their costs.
“The RAO’s estimate of the cost of processing a copy of the BWC footage was reasonable based on an estimate that the total time of footage recorded during the five weeks specified in the FOIL request was approximately 190 hours, and in addition to the 190 hours required to view the recordings in real time, an additional 60% (or 114 hours) will be required to copy the BWC footage in a manner that will redact the exempt portions of the BWC footage, for a total of approximately 304 hours. The lowest paid NYPD employee with the skills required to prepare a redacted copy of the recordings is in the rank of police officer, and the costs of compensating a police officer is $120 per hour. Multiplying $120 by 304 hours equals $34,480 which closely approximates the amount estimated by the RAO. This approximate cost does not include the time required to locate and collate the recordings, for which no charge is made, as that time is a part of the search for responsive records, and not a part of the time required for copying. In sum, the copying cost, as estimated by the RAO, is reasonable and commensurate with the breadth of the FOIL request.”
Even if their claims are true, which they most likely are not, having the police handle body camera footage “in house” is obviously not the best option for transparency or cost, considering the inflated budgets that police officers enjoy.
Many advocates for police accountability suggest that body camera footage should be open source, and in the hands of the people and not the police. This could likely be handled by teams of volunteers and donors who could keep the project running without a large budget.
When there is a project that has enough support, it will usually receive sufficient donations from individuals, businesses and charity organizations to keep the program operating. We saw this in the U.S. a few years back, when the government pulled the plug on funding for the SETI space program. This was a program that many people still wanted despite the government’s decision to cut funding. In fact, they wanted it around so badly that over 2,400 different donations were received in a single week, easily surpassing their goal of $200,000.
If put in the hands of the public, police body camera footage could work in the same way, but this option has been unanimously rejected by police departments across the country.
John Vibes is an author and researcher who organizes a number of large events including the Free Your Mind Conference. He also has a publishing company where he offers a censorship free platform for both fiction and non-fiction writers. You can contact him and stay connected to his work at his Facebook page. You can purchase his books, or get your own book published at his website www.JohnVibes.com.