You’re walking down the street and see the police doing something you think should be filmed. Or, cops detained your friend and you want to see what happened. How do you get access to police body-cam footage, and what are your rights to film the police?
If you find yourself witnessing police activity or misconduct you want to record, or if you want to ask the police to hand over the footage from their body-worn cameras, you might have some questions about how — or even if — you can.
THE CITY wrote this guide to help. New York has strict laws promoting transparency concerning police activity and the public’s right to record a police officer on duty in public. Here’s how to access recordings made by the police, and what you can, and can’t, get your hands on.
Can I film the police with a phone or camera? Are there any limits to how or where I can film the police?
Yes, you can record the police. The First Amendment protects that right, as do New York State and New York City law. As long as you don’t physically interfere with the police on duty, you’re allowed to stay, witness and record.
Keep in mind that whenever you record, however, you’ll have to keep at a safe distance — which can differ depending on the situation — and comply with any instructions from the police. If they ask you to back up, for example, you must do it. But state law prohibits police officers taking away your recording device or otherwise interfering with your right to record them.
Michael Sisitzky, assistant director of policy at the New York Civil Liberties Union, noted that collecting civilian footage of police misconduct is much easier than getting body-cam video.
While policy changes and a growing emphasis on accountability and transparency have bolstered the public’s right to access police records, actually getting those records may still require getting past administrative hurdles, like long Freedom-of-Information request wait times.
“It’s really apparent in the footage that we saw from the killing of Eric Garner and the killing of George Floyd — these are all cases where the public became first aware of those encounters because of bystander footage,” he said. “And that really speaks to the critical importance of folks who document police activity on their own. And that is absolutely a right that New Yorkers have.”
Can I get access to the NYPD body-camera footage?
In recent years, NYPD officers, sergeants, lieutenants and specialized units have all been required to wear body cameras when they are on the job. They are allowed to turn it off sometimes — but more on that later.
The use began in April 2017, as part of a yearlong pilot program to examine the effects of body-worn cameras on the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, when the department equipped 1,300 police officers with body cameras. Since then, the number has grown to over 24,000.
In February 2019, a New York appellate court ruled that footage from these cameras is not a personnel record, which are typically exempt from the state and federal freedom-of-information requests. That ruling opened up these recordings to requests from the public.
So, yes, you can get access to footage from body-worn cameras. But it’s a process and can take a long time.
To get access to that kind of record in New York City, you will have to submit a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request through the city Open Records portal, or contact the police department’s Public Records Access officer — more on that below. (FYI: FOIA covers access to federal records and FOIL covers access to state and city records.)
The NYPD has said it will publish body worn camera footage online relating to “critical incidents,” which are those that result in death or serious physical injury, or the discharge of a firearm that hit or could have hit another person. They must do so within 30 days of the incident occurring, per the department’s own policy.
The police commissioner can also choose to release footage that “will address vast public attention, or concern, or will help enforce the law, preserve peace, and/or maintain public order.”
These videos are posted to the NYPD’s YouTube channel and usually only contain excerpts from a more complete recording, said Sisitzky.
“It’s often edited footage. They’ll accompany it with sometimes a press release or an NYPD statement, providing what they consider to be contexts leading into their kind of version of what the public is about to see in that encounter,” he said. “So it is still very much a NYPD-controlled process.”
What kinds of footage can I access?
Accessing police body-worn camera footage is the public’s right under the law, but even FOIA and FOIL have exceptions. Footage might not be released if it:
- Results in unwarranted invasion of privacy.
- Hampers an ongoing investigation.
- Concerns an arrest that was later dismissed and sealed.
- Violates a person’s right to a fair trial.
- Violates any other state or federal statutes.
Jennvine Wong, staff lawyer at the Cop Accountability Project at the Legal Aid Society, said the police often use those reasons to avoid releasing footage, even though access to most body-worn camera footage is covered under freedom-of-information laws.
“It is generally available to the public, but it is subject to certain FOIL exemptions, and the department will often use any and all of those exemptions as broadly as they can to not release body-worn camera footage especially if it’s sensitive or they believe it might shed any other officers in a bad light,” she said.
How can I access police footage?
Submitting a request for police footage is similar to making any other FOIL request, which reporters at THE CITY do often. Our best advice — and that of other subject experts — is to be very specific and detailed about the record you’re looking for. That typically involves names, dates, places, file formats and any identifying numbers attached to the record that you can include. The more detail, the better.
Every government agency should have a Records Access officer handling FOIL and FOIA requests. Here is contact information for the NYPD’s Records Access officer:
Lt. Richard Mantellino
Legal Bureau – FOIL Unit
One Police Plaza, Room 110-A
New York, NY 10038
You can also email email@example.com.
Be prepared to wait — and to be persistent. Accessing public records is a notoriously long process, and although agencies have five days to acknowledge a FOIL request, it usually takes longer — sometimes months, or even years — to get the actual record.
“It would not be uncommon for it to take a long time or for the NYPD FOIL department to say that you’ll have it within 30 days and then 15 days later, extend that time and continue to do that several times,” said Wong.
What can I do if the police deny my request?
The NYPD has been slow to respond to requests from even other city agencies for body-worn camera footage in the past. In June 2020, a memo by the Civilian Complaint Review Board revealed that over 1,000 requests received no response.
If the department denies your request at the end of the waiting period, you have 30 days to file an administrative appeal. You can submit your appeal by email to FOILAPPEALS@nypd.org, or physically mail it to the NYPD’s Records Access Appeal Officer:
Sgt. Jordan Mazur
Legal Bureau-Civil Section
One Police Plaza, Room 1406
New York, NY 10038
If the appeal is denied, your next recourse is to file an Article 78 lawsuit, which allows you to take the agency you’re FOILing to Civil Court to determine whether the denial — of both your initial request and the appeal — were appropriate.
You can file that legal paperwork yourself, but you may want to consider getting legal help with an Article 78 case.
Can the police turn their body worn cameras off?
They can. Officers are able to physically turn them on and off at their discretion; they alone operate the camera. That can become concerning when timing is a key factor in the content of the recording, experts said.
They are required to have their cameras on from start to finish when “an event requires it,” said Wong, for instance, when they approach a civilian and ask for their license and registration, but it’s not a perfect science.
“What we often see in criminal discovery is that you have officers that turn on body worn cameras too late, turn it off too early and, you know, and in some cases don’t even turn it on at all,” she said.
Police are allowed to turn them off, particularly in certain parts of the police station or precinct, when not on duty. But enforcement of those rules is not consistent, experts said.
“We have kind of long standing concerns about the NYPD not actually holding officers to account for violations of department rules and policies,” Sisitzky said. “The policy is only as strong as the NYPD’s willingness and desire to enforce it.”
NYPD policy, as of 2021, determines that penalties for turning off body worn cameras, either unintentionally or intentionally, range from anywhere between 1 to 30 “penalty days,” i.e. a forfeited vacation day or a day’s suspension without pay).
Can I get access to footage from the cameras inside police stations?
In theory, that footage obtained by cameras fixed on the walls of a precinct should be fair game since there is no law exempting such footage from disclosure, Wong argued. The only possible objections the department may raise in that scenario might relate to invasion of privacy, in case the camera was pointing towards a cell where unrelated people are detained, for example.
While the law and its interpretation might seem straightforward, in practice, getting footage from cameras inside precincts can be even more challenging. THE CITY’s own reporter waited months to get access to footage from inside the 73rd precinct; read more about that here. So while the steps to getting access to police footage, bodycam or otherwise, might be made clear on the department’s website, keep your expectations tempered: the actual process will likely, ultimately, involve a long wait and bureaucratic hurdles.
Do you have more questions about accessing footage collected by the police or recording police activity? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try our best to answer them.