In Los Angeles and New York City, law enforcement agencies are still resisting efforts to shine a light on individual officer misconduct by withholding body camera footage and ignoring public records requests from media outlets.
In the middle of a massive nationwide push for more police accountability and fewer police officers on the city payroll, Gothamist reports that the New York Police Department (NYPD) is failing to provide body camera footage requested by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).
The NYPD agreed last November to provide police body camera footage to the CCRB, the only agency in New York independent from the police department empowered to review accusations of police misconduct filed by members of the public.
But as of the end of June, Gothamist reports, the CCRB has not received responses to more than 1,100 requests for body camera footage. At least 40 percent of the requests were more than 90 days old. The agreement between the CCRB and NYPD says the board will receive the footage within 25 days of a request.
As a result of the NYPD not doing its job, CCRB investigators are unable to do theirs. The Gothamist reported the contents of a memo from two leaders in the CCRB’s investigation division sent to top staff warning that the situation is untenable: “The struggle for access to [body worn cameras] is the struggle for the future of civilian oversight. In this era of rightfully increased scrutiny of police accountability, we urge the Agency to seize this moment to do everything in its power to obtain unmediated direct access to BWC footage.” The memo goes so far as to say that oversight of police has actually gotten worse under this new regime of body-worn cameras because the CCRB isn’t able to get footage to perform timely investigations.
Gothamist‘s reporting also notes that police unions have contributed to the backlog. The agreement says the NYPD can withhold footage from cases in which officers kill or seriously injure someone until the NYPD has completed its own investigation. Officers are also permitted to review their body camera footage before the CCRB interviews them. Prior to June, police unions were declining to allow officers to be interviewed remotely as a COVID-19 precaution.
On the other coast, changes in California public records laws implemented in 2019 were supposed to open up police misconduct records to the public and media. Prior to 2019, state law exempted police personnel records from public records requests.
Yet law enforcement agencies across the state have looked for ways to resist the new policy, attempting to argue (unsuccessfully) that the law wasn’t retroactive and didn’t apply to records created before the law passed. Some cities even went on a record-shredding spree.
The Los Angeles Times has been seeking discipline records from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) for hundreds of deputies. The paper requested records for 325 deputies—by name, because the department would not cooperate with any records requests that didn’t include names. The paper has since received records for exactly two officers.
Last week, the Times filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of California in Los Angeles to force the LASD to hand over these records. According to their coverage, the LASD isn’t just refusing to hand over deputy misconduct records. The department is also withholding information about people who have died in Los Angeles jails and Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s daily schedule.
Villanueva has blamed the delay on staffing issues and a lack of funding to comply with S.B. 1421, the bill that required California law enforcement agencies to release police misconduct records.
That obtaining public records in California continues to be nearly impossible more than a year after the legislature required law enforcement agencies to open their filing cabinets does not bode well for police transparency in New York, which reformed its own police records laws in June.
Even when the law makes releasing records mandatory, law enforcement agencies can all but refuse to comply. If the NYPD’s body camera backlog is any indication, New York police are still capable of avoiding the disinfecting power of sunlight.