Early last week the New York Police Department was slapped with a lawsuit alleging that the policies surrounding its body camera program turn the cameras “from an accountability tool into a tool for surveilling and criminalizing New Yorkers.” On Friday, Judge Analisa Torres dismissed the suit as being premature and said the pilot program could move forward.

The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), claims that the pilot program strayed from its original intended purpose and wanted to press pause on camera deployment. In 2013, Torres found that NYPD officers were wrongly targeting black and Hispanic men with the department’s stop-and-frisk program. Torres ordered the NYPD to launch a body camera pilot program as a potential way to hold officers accountable in their interactions with the public and appointed a Federal monitor to oversee the program. After the department’s policies recently received approval from the Federal monitor, the NYPD hoped to launch its pilot program by rolling out cameras to roughly 1,000 officers by the end of the summer.

“The court ordered the body cameras to address constitutional violations by NYPD officers, not to provide an additional tool for police to investigate and charge New Yorkers,” said Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at CCR, before the lawsuit was dismissed. “The pilot policy approved by the monitor turns this purpose on its head.”

One of the CCR’s top concerns with the policy is that the policy describes the purposes of the cameras to “provide evidence for criminal prosecutions.” However, Torres initially ordered the cameras because of constitutional violations of the part of the NYPD, not to surveil the general public.

Additionally, the CCR is concerned that officers are given too much latitude in when the cameras need to be turned on and too many street encounters will go unrecorded. The CCR wants the judge to require police to record more interactions in their entirety.

The policy also does not specifically require police to notify the public that they are being recorded, even though the original judicial order mentions the importance of public notification. Instead, the current policy uses the language “reasonably practical,” which CCR argues is overly vague and could be interpreted in many ways.

The CCR also objects to allowing officers to view their own and fellow officers’ recordings before making statements or writing their reports. The CCR argues in a letter to the judge that “separating an officer’s personal recollection of an incident from the narrative on his or her body-worn camera video is of critical importance to the use of [body-worn cameras] as an accountability tool.”

In her ruling, Torres argued that the proposed policy was not final and that the CCR’s lawsuit came too early.

“We are pleased with the court’s ruling and look forward to the upcoming implementation of the body camera program,” said a spokesman for the NYPD in a statement Friday night.

Unsurprisingly, the CCR was disappointed in the ruling.

“In this context, I don’t know what’s premature about it,” Charney said. He also said that the CCR plans to review its recent court filings to “figure out if we missed something, then decide what we’re going to do.”

The pilot program is set to begin today with about 50 patrol officers in the NYPD’s 34th Precinct, in Washington Heights and Inwood, wearing the cameras.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs