NYPD Tells Public Record Requester It Will Cost $36,000 to Process a 'Sampling' of Body Camera Footage

by Tim Cushing
Jan. 28, 2016

The NYPD is once again in the middle of a transparency/accountability controversy. The law enforcement agency has achieved the dubious distinction of being more difficult to obtain public records from than federal three-letter agencies like the CIA and NSA. The latest news does nothing to improve its reputation.

Some of this is due to its in-house classification system, which allows it to arbitrarily declare potentially-responsive documents "secret" -- something it does quite often with no apparent oversight. Some of it is due to the department's general antagonism towards transparency and openness, which keeps documents not marked secret out of the public's hands just because. Its steadfast belief that the only entity truly entitled to information is the NYPD has seen this attitude carried over to discovery requests in civil lawsuits and criminal cases, much to the general disgruntlement of presiding judges.

With the NYPD's court-ordered body camera program going into effect, the recorded footage is the latest target of FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests. TV station NY1 asked for a "sampling" of body-worn camera footage from five weeks of recording. In return, the NYPD has given it nothing but delays… and a high-dollar estimate.
When the NYPD first rolled out its body camera pilot program, the idea was increased transparency and accountability. But last spring when NY1 requested five weeks worth of footage under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, known as FOIL, the NYPD said it would cost NY1 $36,000 so that an officer could first review and edit the video, to address privacy and other concerns.
After a couple rounds of appeals, the TV station has taken the next step. It sued the NYPD, citing a number of FOIL violations.
The NYPD denied NY1's request for unedited footage without specifying what material it plans to redact, how much material will be excluded from disclosure, or how the redaction will be performed. Instead, Respondents suggested that they may provide with edited footage, but only on the condition that remit $36,000.00, the alleged cost to the NYPD of performing its unidentified redactions.

FOIL does not permit public records to be withheld absent a full explanation of the materials that are exempt from disclosure. FOIL also does not permit agencies to levy any charge for review and redaction of records (let alone a $36,000.00 charge). As a result, the response to NY1's request violates FOIL.

Indeed, the response to NY1's request for footage runs counter to both the public policy of openness underlying FOIL, as well as the purported transparency supposedly fostered by the BWC program itself.
Redacting footage isn't necessarily inexpensive, but the NYPD has provided no justification for the $36,000 fee. The FOIL request doesn't ask for anything more than a "sampling" of the recorded footage. The NYPD responses don't specify whether the agency considers this to be every minute of footage recorded during those time periods, or something considerably more limited.

It is true that the footage will have to be redacted, at least in part. But without further information, the "reasonableness" of the NYPD's fee demand can't be assessed. This FOIL paywall runs contrary to the law's purpose, as well as the presumption of disclosure stressed in comments made by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who lauded the new body-worn camera program as a step forward in transparency and accountability. If the footage remains solely in the possession of the NYPD, there will be no additional transparency or accountability.

On the other hand, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton seems to feel the state's public record law only applies to other government agencies. The NYPD currently ranks at the bottom of the list for city agency FOIL responsiveness. That seems unlikely to change if this is how the department responds to requests for footage.
"We have never released 911 calls, and video recorded by these officers, I think, would be under the same protection of not being released, even to FOIL requests," said Police Commissioner William Bratton.
Unfortunately, this response from the NYPD -- despite effectively pricing NY1 out of the market for these public records -- directly contradicts the commissioner's beliefs. Obviously, the NYPD FOIL team feels these documents are responsive to public records requests. However, it's more than willing to do whatever it takes to ensure this responsiveness remains in the realm of the theoretical.

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