Judge Temporarily Halts Release of Police Body Camera Videos

A state appellate judge issued a temporary order on Monday blocking the New York Police Department from releasing video from officers’ body cameras to the public.

The order, by Justice Rosalyn H. Richter of the Appellate Division in Manhattan, had been sought by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, which this month lost its lawsuit seeking to have the videos classified as personnel records that state law exempts from public disclosure without a court order. The order will remain in effect until a full panel of judges decides the union’s appeal of that ruling.

The Police Department’s current policy is to release some footage on a case-by-case basis at the commissioner’s discretion, and it has done so in three police-involved shootings. But critics of the policy, including city police unions and transparency advocates, say the decisions are politically motivated.

“Each time the N.Y.P.D. illegally and arbitrarily releases body-worn camera footage, they are harming police officers’ safety, the public’s right to privacy and the interests of justice in ways that can’t be undone,” Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the patrolmen’s union, said in a statement. “The Legislature enacted laws limiting public disclosure of police officers’ personnel records to guard against exactly this scenario.”

The final outcome of the lawsuit hovers over the Police Department’s plan to equip all its patrol officers with body cameras by the end of the year. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill have said the devices are necessary to increase transparency and public trust, but their critics say the body camera program’s success depends on how much video the public gets to see.

Justice Richter’s temporary order does not weigh in on the merits of the case, and it allows for State Supreme Court judges to make modifications if the need to release the video arises.

In its lawsuit, the union argued that the videos from police body cameras are personnel records used to evaluate officers’ performance. Therefore, union lawyers argued in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the videos are protected from public disclosure by Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law. The statute forbids the release of personnel records used to evaluate police officers, firefighters and corrections officers for continued employment or promotion.

Justice Shlomo S. Hagler said the union did not have standing to bring the lawsuit and tossed the case on May 3. He refused to block the Police Department from releasing more videos while the union appealed.

Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the Law Department, said the city was disappointed with Justice Richter’s order.

“The whole idea behind the B.W.C. program is to ensure transparency and accountability for the public,” he said, using an abbreviation for body-worn cameras. “We believe B.W.C. footage is a factual record of an incident, not a personnel record protected by 50-a.”