NEW YORK (AP) — In the years of debate over New York City’s stop-and-frisk tactic, the idea of putting tiny cameras on police officers to record their interaction with the public was never seriously considered.
It came up almost by accident during an unscripted moment in the months-long civil rights trial over stop-and-frisk, when the city’s own policing expert raised it during testimony as something other cities use to determine whether a stop was made legally.
U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin seized on it.
“It would solve a lot of problems,” she said at the time. “Everybody would know exactly what occurred. It would be easy to review it. The officer would be aware he’s on tape.”
In her decision this week finding that city police intentionally discriminated against blacks and Hispanics when using stop-and-frisk, she ordered major changes including a pilot program of body-worn police cameras. As she described it, the cameras would be part of the possible remedies to “provide a contemporaneous, objective record … allowing for the review of the officer conduct by supervisors and the courts.”
Body-worn cameras are being used in some form in hundreds of smaller departments around the country and have been largely successful in reducing complaints against police and controlling the behavior of some suspects.
But New York City’s mayor has already criticized their use as unnecessary for the 35,000-officer department. Police reform advocates cautiously agreed to the idea in theory — with some caveats.
“It needs to be examined further, which is why a test program is the right idea,” said Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit that led to Scheindlin’s ruling.
And both sides have raised privacy concerns in a city that already has thousands of public and private cameras recording people.
“New York City is already saturated with video cameras,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents the rank-and-file officers. “Our members are already weighed down with equipment like escape hoods, mace, flashlights, memo books, (expandable police batons) radio, handcuffs and the like. Additional equipment becomes an encumbrance and a safety issue.”
In other cities where the cameras have been used, police officials say the results have been promising.
A yearlong pilot program in Rialto, Calif., ended in February, and researchers there found the number of use-of-force incidents dropped by half. The city of about 100,000 also had significantly fewer public complaints about police, dropping from 28 to just three.
In Arizona, Scottsdale police began using 10 body cameras about two months ago as the agency looks into equipping all of its roughly 250 patrol officers with the new devices.