NYC Council Passes 'Right To Record' Police Transparency Legislation

June 18th, 2020

Press Release

The New York City Council passed legislation today from Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams that would codify and protect the right of civilians to record police officer activity. The vote to pass this bill, first introduced in 2016, comes after video of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd has spurred a national movement for an end to policing injustice and videos taken at these protests have shown further officer misconduct.

Int. 721-B or the Right to Record Act would codify into local law a person's right to record New York City police officers or peace officers acting in their official capacity, from a safe distance. The bill, co-sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal, also allows any individual whose rights are violated to sue the City in state court, and requires reporting related to filming police activities. It would create the possibility for for a judge to issue punitive damages to victims, further deterring interference with the protected right to record.

The legislation came after a number of prominent instances when civilians' right to record was deliberately infringed. It would requires the Commissioner to issue quarterly reports of arrests and summons issued when persons record police activity, came after a number of prominent instances when civilians' right to record was deliberately infringed.

"From George Floyd to Eric Garner, we have seen a near constant stream of video of police misconduct for several years. While these videos are often painful, they are also crucial," said Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams. "Again and again, we see that video evidence is one of the only ways to have a chance at accountability for officer misconduct. But again and again, we also see officers attempting to infringe on the right to record, and the transparency that comes with it, blocking attempts penalizing people who exercise this right. Because of the advocates who pushed for this legislation for years, and the protesters who demonstrated both its need and its urgency, we can finally combat those abuses. By codifying this right in city law, we further protect the ability for the public to provide transparency and demand accountability."

The Public Advocate has spoken in recent days about the critical role video has played in officer accountability surrounding the recent protests, highlighting that without video evidence, eyewitness accounts of officer misconduct are dismissed, and that even with video present, people in power - including the Mayor and Governor - have sought to deny this action. At a Council hearing on the Right to Record Act, he stated "I used my own phone to record incidents that were not believed. Imagine if they were not. Imagine if we were not aware. Would justice be sought?" He also testified on this issue at a Wednesday hearing by New York State Attorney General Letitia James.

The Right to Record Act passed as part of a broad package of police reform legislation within the City Council today. The Public Advocate said of the bills "I congratulate the Council on passing these crucial pieces of legislation today that will help all New Yorkers, both community members and the multitude of officers who come to work to truly serve the community. I am glad they gained new attention, consideration, and urgency amid this national moment of reckoning, but these bills are not the end of that moment. Next we must reckon with our very definition of public safety, which does not equate with policing, and how we can make that definition a reality in our systems."

In New York City, there have been numerous instances in which people were prevented from or retaliated against for recording officer actions. From 2014 to 2016, the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigated 257 complaints involving officers interfering with video recording. Most of the complaints involved officers using physical interference to prevent the recordings. There has also been extensive anecdotal reporting of such instances, including the prevention of journalists from documenting police activity in the recent protests.

"New York City residents have a fundamental constitutional right to document their interactions with local law enforcement in public spaces -- using photos, video or other means. The Right to Record Act reaffirms our First Amendment rights, helping to ensure that civilians who record police activity are not harassed or otherwise stopped, and I'm proud to have co-sponsored it with Public Advocate Williams. Since the bill's introduction in 2016, we have seen countless, tragic instances in which a video recording made a profound difference in the fight against police brutality," said Council Member Helen Rosenthal (Manhattan, District 6).

"For decades police brutality against Black and brown New Yorkers has been an issue. And in response, hundreds and thousands of New Yorkers have made complaints on instances where NYPD officers abuse their authority. Well, today not much has changed today. For far too long, we've experienced a lack of accountability and leadership that allowed police officers to lie and give false statements about their own or witnessed misconduct," said Chair of the Committee on Public Safety Council Member Donovan Richards. "The Right-to-Record bill prevents NYPD officers from block civilians' First Amendment rights. Every New Yorker has the right to record police activity without physical force, intimidation, destruction and confiscation of property. The public wants to know what's going and we have that right to know. We want to ensure that in increasing accountability and transparency, New Yorkers are protected under the law. Community leaders and members should continue recording police activity to show the realities that Black and brown New Yorkers face. A reality that is not always reflected in the one-sided body camera footage that protect abusive officers."

"This legislation is a long time coming. We've seen far too many cases of police officers interfering what is an existing First Amendment right," said First Deputy Public Advocate Nick E. Smith. "We knew, back in 2016, and we know now, that we had to act. This law makes it crystal clear - people are allowed to record police activities from a safe distance. On top of these robust reporting requirements, we are blazing a new trail by allowing judges to issue punitive damages to those New Yorkers whose rights have been violated. This is another deterrent against interference, and a reminder that we have the Right to Record."

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