Pluralistic: How the NYPD defeated bodycams (14 Dec 2023)

Today's links

The torso of a police officer. He is wearing a bodycam. The bodycam's lens has been replaced by the glaring red eye of HAL9000 from Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.'

How the NYPD defeated bodycams (permalink)

Anything that can't go on forever will eventually stop. When American patience for racial profiling in traffic stops reached a breaking point, cops rolled out dashcams. Dashcam footage went AWOL, or just recorded lots of racist, pretextual stops. Racial profiling continued.

Tasers and pepper spray were supposed to curb the undue use of force by giving cops an alternative to shooting dangerous-seeming people. Instead, we got cops who tasered and sprayed unarmed people and then shot them to pieces.

Next came bodycams: by indelibly recording cops' interactions with the public, body-worn cameras were pitched as a way to bring accountability to American law-enforcement. Finally, police leadership would be able to sort officers' claims from eyewitness accounts and figure out who was lying. Bad cops could be disciplined. Repeat offenders could be fired.

Police boosters insist that police violence and corruption are the result of "a few bad apples." As the saying goes, "a few bad apples spoil the bushel." If you think there are just a few bad cops on the force, then you should want to get rid of them before they wreck the whole institution. Bodycams could empirically identify the bad apples, right?

Well, hypothetically. But what if police leadership don't want to get rid of the bad apples? What if the reason that dashcams, tasers, and pepper spray failed is that police leadership are fine with them? If that were the case, then bodycams would turn into just another expensive prop for an off-Broadway accountability theater.

What if?

In "How Police Have Undermined the Promise of Body Cameras," Propublica's Eric Umansky and Umar Farooq deliver a characteristically thorough, deep, and fascinating account of the failure of NYPD bodycams to create the accountability that New York's political and police leadership promised:

Topline: NYPD's bodycam rollout was sabotaged by police leadership and top NYC politicians. Rather than turning over bodycam footage to oversight boards following violent incidents, the NYPD suppresses it. When overseers are allowed to see the footage, they get fragmentary access. When those fragments reveal misconduct, they are forbidden to speak of it. When the revealed misconduct is separate from the main incident, it can't be used to discipline officers. When footage is made available to the public, it is selectively edited to omit evidence of misconduct.

NYPD policy contains loopholes that allow them to withhold footage. Where those loopholes don't apply, the NYPD routinely suppresses footage anyway, violating its own policies. When the NYPD violates its policies, it faces no consequences. When overseers complain, they are fired.

Bodycams could be a source of accountability for cops, but for that to be true, control over bodycams would have to vest with institutions that want to improve policing. If control over bodycams is given to institutions that want to shield cops from accountability, that's exactly what will happen. There is nothing about bodycams that makes them more resistant to capture than dashcams, tasers or pepper spray.

This is a problem across multiple police departments. Minneapolis, for example, has policies from before and after the George Floyd uprisings that require bodycam disclosure, and those policies are routinely flouted. Derek Chauvin, George Floyd's murderer, was a repeat offender and had been caught on bodycam kneeling on other Black peoples' necks. Chauvin once clubbed a 14 year old child into unconsciousness and then knelt on his neck for 15 minutes as his mother begged for her child's life. Chauvin faced no discipline for this and the footage was suppressed.

In Montgomery, Alabama, it took five years of hard wrangling to get access to bodycam footage after an officer sicced his attack dog on an unarmed Black man without warning. The dog severed the man's femoral artery and he died. Montgomery PD suppressed the footage, citing the risk of officers facing "embarrassment."

In Memphis, the notoriously racist police department was able to suppress bodycam disclosures until the murder of Tyre Nichols. The behavior of the officers who beat Nichols to death are a testament to their belief in their own impunity. Some officers illegally switched off their cameras; others participated in the beating in full view of the cameras, fearing no consequences.

In South Carolina, the police murder of Walter Scott was captured on a bystander's phone camera. That footage made it clear that Scott's uniformed killers lied, prompting then-governor Nikki Haley to sign a law giving the public access to bodycam footage. But the law contained a glaring loophole: it made bodycam footage "not a public record subject to disclosure." Nothing changed.

Bodycam footage does often reveal that killer cops lie about their actions. When a Cincinnati cop killed a Black man during a 2015 traffic-stop, his bodycam footage revealed that the officer lied about his victim "lunging at him" before he shot. Last summer, a Philadelphia cop was caught lying about the circumstances that led to him murdering a member of the public. Again, the officer claimed the man had "lunged at him." The cop's camera showed the man sitting peacefully in his own car.

Police departments across the country struggle with violent, lying officers, but few can rival the NYPD for corruption, violence, scale and impunity. The NYPD has its own "goon squad," the Strategic Response Group, whose leaked manual reveals how the secret unit spends about $100m/year training and deploying ultraviolent, illegal tactics:

The NYPD's disciplinary records – published despite a panicked scramble to suppress them – reveal the NYPD's infestation with criminal cops who repeatedly break the law in meting out violence against the public:

These cops are the proverbial bad apples, and they do indeed spoil the barrel. A 2019 empirical analysis of police disciplinary records show that corruption is contagious: when crooked cops are paired with partners who have clean disciplinary records, those partners become crooked, too, and the effect lasts even after the partnership ends:

Despite the risk of harboring criminals in police ranks, the NYPD goes to extreme lengths to keep its worst officers on the street. New York City's police "union"'s deal with the city requires NYC to divert millions to a (once) secret slushfund used to pay high-priced lawyers to defend cops whose conduct is so egregious that the city's own attorneys refuse to defend them:

This is a good place for your periodic reminder that police unions are not unions:

Indeed, despite rhetoric to the contrary, policing is a relatively safe occupation, with death rates well below the risks to roofers, loggers, or pizza delivery drivers:

The biggest risk to police officers – the single factor that significantly increased death rates among cops – is police unions themselves. Police unions successfully pressured cities across American to reject covid risk mitigation, from masking to vaccinations, leading to a wave of police deaths. "Suicide by cop" is very rare, but US officers committed "mass suicide by cop union":

But the story that policing is much more dangerous than it really is a useful one. It has a business-model. Military contractors who turn local Barney Fifes into Judge Dredd cosplayers with assault rifles, tanks and other "excess" military gear make billions from the tale:

It's not just beltway bandits who love this story. For cops to be shielded from consequences for murdering the public, they need to tell themselves and the rest of us that they are a "thin blue line," and not mere armed bureaucrats. The myth that cops are in constant danger from the public justifies hair-trigger killings.

Consider the use of "civilian" to describe the public. Police are civilians. The only kind of police officer who isn't a civilian is a military policeman. Places where "civilians" interact with non-civilian law enforcement are, by definition, under military occupation. Calling the public "civilians" is a cheap rhetorical trick that converts a police officer to a patrolling soldier in hostile territory. Calling us "civilians" justifies killing us, because if we're civilians, then they are soldiers and we are at war.

The NYPD clearly conceives of itself as an occupying force and considers its "civilian" oversight to be the enemy. When New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board gained independence in 1993, thousands of off-duty cops joined Rudy Giuliani in a mass protest at City Hall and an occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge. This mass freakout is a measure of police intolerance for oversight – after all, the CCRB isn't even allowed to discipline officers, only make (routinely ignored) recommendations.

Kerry Sweet was the NYPD lawyer who oversaw the department's bodycam rollout. He once joked that the NYPD missed a chance to "bomb the room" where the NYPD's CCRB was meeting (when Propublica asked him to confirm this, he said he couldn't remember those remarks, but "on reflection, it should have been an airstrike").

Obvious defects in the NYPD's bodycam policy go beyond the ability to suppress disclosure of the footage. The department has no official tracking system for its bodycam files. They aren't geotagged, only marked by officer badge-number and name. So if a member of the public comes forward to complain that an unknown officer committed a crime at a specific place and time, there's no way to retrieve that footage. Even where footage can be found, the NYPD often hides the ball: in 20% of cases where the Department told the CCRB footage didn't exist, they were lying.

Figuring out how to make bodycam footage work better is complex, but there are some obvious first steps. Other cities have no problem geotagging their footage. In Chicago, the CCRB can directly access the servers where bodycam footage is stored (when the NYPD CCRB members proposed this, they were fired).

Meanwhile, the NYPD keeps protecting its killers. The Propublica story opens with the police killing of Miguel Richards. Richards' parents hadn't heard from him in a while, so they asked his Bronx landlord to check on him (the Richards live in Jamaica). The landlord called the cops. The cops killed Richards.

The cops claimed he had a gun and they were acting in self-defense. They released a highly edited reel of bodycam footage to support that claim. When the full video was eventually extracted, it revealed that Richards had a tiny plastic toy gun and a small folding knife. The officers involved believed he was suffering an acute mental health incident and stated that policy demanded that they close his bedroom door and wait for specialists. Instead, they barked orders at him and then fired 16 rounds at him. Seven hit him. One ruptured his aorta. As he lay dying on his bedroom floor, one officer roughly tossed him around and cuffed him. He died.

New York's Police Benevolent Association – the largest police "union" in NYC – awarded the officers involved its "Finest of the Finest" prize for their conduct in the killing.

This isn't an isolated incident. A month after the NYPD decided not to punish the cops who killed Richards, NYPD officers murdered Kawaski Trawick in his Bronx apartment:

The officers lied about it, suppressed release of the bodycam footage that would reveal their lies, and then escaped any justice when the footage and the lies were revealed.

None of this means that bodycams are useless. It just means that bodycams will only help bring accountability to police forces when they are directed by parties who have the will and power to make the police accountable.

When police leaders and city governments support police corruption, adding bodycams won't change that fact.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0; Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0; modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Virtual casino added to Everquest

#20yrsago Left Behind deconstructed

#15yrsago WSJ invents fictional Net Neutrality scandal

#15yrsago Arab shoe-tossing isn’t a gesture of friendly affection

#15yrsago No Limit Texas Dreidel

#10yrsago Sassafrass: choral folks songs about space and Icelandic mythos

#10yrsago Bunnie Huang explains the nuts-and-bolts of getting stuff made in Shenzhen

#5yrsago Facebook gave third party developers access to 6.8 million users’ private photos

#5yrsago Rudolph’s Revenge, by Mr Werewolf

#5yrsago Augmented reality and machine empathy: another great sf story from Sarah Gailey

#5yrsago The journalists Facebook installed as fact-checkers say the company is using them as window-dressing

#5yrsago Citing Brett Kavanaugh appointment, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has quit the GOP

#5yrsago Every Mickey: a chimera made by combining every available online 3D model of Mickey Mouse

#5yrsago Yellow Vests stand for and against many contradictory things, but are united in opposition to oligarchy

#5yrsago Mass protests and parliamentary chaos in Hungary over “slave labour” law

#5yrsago Europe’s right-to-repair movement is surging — and winning

#5yrsago After chaos, the EU’s plan to censor the internet takes a huge step backwards

#1yrago This "inflation" is different

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: Daddy-Daughter Podcast, 2023 edition

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla