29 May 2017

Do Body Cameras Help Policing? 1,200 New York Officers Aim to Find Out

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The New York Police Department — on a mission to put body cameras on all 23,000 of its patrol officers in two years — is poised to join one of the biggest experiments in modern policing. On Thursday, it will begin a court-ordered pilot program that will set the stage for the larger rollout.

The pilot program is designed to answer a persistent question about a novel technology that has been adopted by thousands of police agencies around the country: What effect do body cameras have on policing?

From big cities like Los Angeles to small towns like Hamden, Conn., New York lags other municipalities in equipping officers with body cameras. Still, the experiment in America’s largest Police Department is likely to resonate across the country, especially in jurisdictions still weighing whether to use the cameras or to tweak existing programs.

“People look to New York as a leader,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy nonprofit. He pointed to the Police Department’s widely adopted system for tracking and responding to crime, known as CompStat, and its counterterrorism efforts, which drew a visit from Belgium’s interior minister after the deadly bombings in Brussels last year. “You name it, New York has confronted it.”

Other departments will also be interested in how city police officials navigated the demands of various parties, like the court, police officers and the public, in shaping the policy, Mr. Wexler said.

Body cameras have become a mainstay in policing since a federal judge in Manhattan ordered the Police Department to test them as a way to curb unwarranted stops and searches of black and Latino men, so-called stop-and-frisk tactics that she ruled unconstitutional in August 2013. The devices have been pitched with the promise of increasing police transparency and accountability. Although an emerging body of research has suggested that they are helpful to those ends, the results are considered inconclusive.

Police officials in New York say the program is designed to be the most rigorous scientific study of the effects of body cameras so far. About 1,200 officers working the evening shift in 20 precincts will be given the cameras as part of a study that will compare them with roughly the same number of officers in 20 similar precincts who will not wear the cameras. After a year, officials hope to report whether the cameras made a difference areas like officer performance, civilian complaints, crime levels and prosecutions.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to expand the program to all patrol officers by 2019 if he is re-elected in November. It is one of his biggest commitments, and one that he has been unequivocal that he will see through despite several obstacles: The city’s Investigation Department is looking into the Police Department’s awarding of the $6.4 million contract for the equipment; the plaintiffs in Floyd v. City of New York, the lawsuit that led to the program, oppose the policy that details when officers must use the cameras; and police unions representing supervisors also have concerns about the program.

While the mayor has high hopes, he has little control over the process. The court will determine whether the body camera program is working and could speed up or slow down its progress. Still, Mr. de Blasio sees the full rollout as inevitable.

“This is the shape of things to come,” he said at an April 10 event on Staten Island. “If anybody wants to challenge us, we can win that challenge, I am confident.”

The next day, the monitor who oversees stop-and-frisk changes in the Police Department approved the body camera policy and recommended that the program proceed. The plaintiffs’ lawyers objected the following week, asking Judge Analisa Torres to halt the program. But within 48 hours, she dismissed their request.

Although police unions have threatened to seek a restraining order, Judge Torres’s ruling casts doubt on the likelihood that they might be able to delay the program in court.

“We don’t foresee any issue with this,” said Terence A. Monahan, chief of patrol, responding to a question about a possible union challenge. “I’m ready to roll it out.”

Barring court intervention, the police officers at roll call on Thursday afternoon in the 34th Precinct in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods will be the first to wear the cameras.

Washington Heights and Inwood, both Dominican enclaves, were once epicenters of the city’s violent drug epidemic. Bifurcated by Broadway, the area was considered so dangerous that the city created a new precinct — the 33rd — to help combat crime there.

As the city cracked down on the drug gangs that held sway there in the 1990s, crime plummeted, and the area began drawing professionals and young families. But the aggressive policing tactics outlasted the high-crime era and aggravated tensions between the Police Department and the predominantly black and Latino communities where enforcement was highest.

“That mistrust that exists between the two of them, that needs to be addressed,” Prof. Ramona Hernández, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at City University of New York, said on Monday. “So the cameras to me are a welcome tool to do this.”

Lawsuits like Floyd successfully challenged the stop-and-frisk practices, and the body camera pilot program is one of the remedies ordered by the court. The city dropped its appeal after Mr. de Blasio took office, and publicly embraced a neighborhood policing model that put the relationship between officers and city residents at the forefront of efforts to further reduce crime.

Whether the program will be successful largely depends on how the city carries it out, Professor Hernández said, echoing civil liberties lawyers and police reform advocates. Those groups raised concerns over the camera policy, which they said failed to ensure that the cameras would not be used to surveil vulnerable communities or to protect officers accused of misconduct or abuse.

Questions remain over how the administration will handle cases that involve officers wearing the cameras. The Police Department already refuses to say how officers who break the rules are disciplined, citing a state law that protects officers’ personnel records.

Residents in Washington Heights who say they have experienced unnecessary stops and searches expressed a mix of optimism and wariness that the cameras would improve their interactions with police officers.

Leaning against the side of a bodega on Broadway on Monday, Ozzie Peña, 28, recalled being stopped a handful of times since he was 16. Each time, he said, officers searched him before giving him a reason. Sometimes, he said, they left without giving a reason at all.

“It makes you look and feel like a common criminal, whoever you are,” Mr. Peña said.

Police body cameras are a good idea that will encourage officers to follow the rules, he said — “Hopefully.”

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