How Police Have Undermined the Promise of Body Cameras

Police Body Camera Stock

Police Body Camera Stock

by Eric Umansky, with additional reporting by Umar Farooq

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When Barbara and Belvett Richards learned that the police had killed their son, they couldn’t understand it. How, on that September day in 2017, did their youngest child come to be shot in his own apartment by officers from the New York Police Department?

Miguel Richards, who was 31, grew up in Jamaica and had moved to New York about a year earlier after coming to the United States through a work-study program. His father’s friend gave him a job doing office work, and he rented a room in the Bronx. But he started to struggle, becoming reclusive and skipping days of work. His mother, with whom he was particularly close, pleaded with him to return to Jamaica. “It’s as if I sensed something was going to happen,” she says. “I was calling him, calling him, calling him: ‘Miguel, come home. Come home.’”

His parents knew he had never been violent, had never been arrested and had never had any issues with the police. What details they managed to gather came from the Bronx district attorney: Richards’ landlord, who hadn’t seen him for weeks, asked the police to check on him. The officers who responded found Richards standing still in his own bedroom, holding a small folding knife. And 15 minutes later, they shot him.

Richards’ death marked a historic turning point. It was the first time a killing by officers was recorded by a body camera in New York. The new program was announced just months before as heralding a new era of accountability. Now, a week after the shooting, the department posted on its website a compilation of footage from four of the responding officers. The video, the department said in an introduction to the presentation, was produced “for clear viewing of the event as a totality.” And as far as the department was concerned, the narrative was clear. Sometimes “the use of deadly force is unavoidable,” the police commissioner at the time, James O’Neill, wrote in an internal message. The level of restraint shown by all officers, he said, is “nothing short of exceptional.” And, he added that “releasing footage from critical incidents like this will help firmly establish your restraint in the use of force.”

Richards’ parents were not convinced. Belvett watched footage at the district attorney’s office. What he saw, and what was released, did not, in fact, show that the use of deadly force was unavoidable. He later learned that the department had not released all the footage. What else didn’t they know about their son’s death?

When body-worn cameras were introduced a decade ago, they seemed to hold the promise of a revolution. Once police officers knew they were being filmed, surely they would think twice about engaging in misconduct. And if they crossed the line, they would be held accountable: The public, no longer having to rely on official accounts, would know about wrongdoing. Police and civilian oversight agencies would be able to use footage to punish officers and improve training. In an outlay that would ultimately cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the technology represented the largest new investment in policing in a generation.

Yet without deeper changes, it was a fix bound to fall far short of those hopes. In every city, the police ostensibly report to mayors and other elected officials. But in practice, they have been given wide latitude to run their departments as they wish and to police — and protect — themselves. And so as policymakers rushed to equip the police with cameras, they often failed to grapple with a fundamental question: Who would control the footage? Instead, they defaulted to leaving police departments, including New York’s, with the power to decide what is recorded, who can see it and when. In turn, departments across the country have routinely delayed releasing footage, released only partial or redacted video or refused to release it at all. They have frequently failed to discipline or fire officers when body cameras document abuse and have kept footage from the agencies charged with investigating police misconduct.

Even when departments have stated policies of transparency, they don’t always follow them. Three years ago, after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers and amid a wave of protests against police violence, the New York Police Department said it would publish footage of so-called critical incidents “within 30 days.” There have been 380 such incidents since then. The department has released footage within a month just twice.

And the department often does not release video at all. There have been 28 shootings of civilians this year by New York officers (through the first week of December). The department has released footage in just seven of these cases (also through the first week of December) and has not done so in any of the last 16.

Asked about the department’s limited release of footage, a spokesperson pointed to a caveat, contained in an internal order, that footage can be withheld because of laws or department policy. “The NYPD remains wholly committed to its policy of releasing such recordings as quickly and responsibly as circumstances and the law dictate,” the spokesperson wrote. “Though transparency is of the utmost importance, so too is the Police Department’s commitment to preserving privacy rights.” The department did not say which policies require the withholding of footage and did not address other questions about its record on the cameras. (Mayor Eric Adams’ spokesperson did not make him available for comment.)

For a snapshot of disclosure practices across the country, we conducted a review of civilians killed by police officers in June 2022, roughly a decade after the first body cameras were rolled out. We counted 79 killings in which there was body-worn-camera footage. A year and a half later, the police have released footage in just 33 cases — or about 42%.

This article is the product of more than six months spent investigating how the police have undermined the promise of transparency and accountability that accompanied the body-camera movement. We interviewed dozens of department insiders, government lawyers, policing experts and advocates and reviewed hundreds of pages of internal reports, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, and dozens of hours of surveillance-camera and body-camera footage, including some that the New York Police Department fought against disclosing. The reporting reveals that without further intervention from city, state and federal officials and lawmakers, body cameras may do more to serve police interests than those of the public they are sworn to protect.

To Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is now a professor at the Joseph F. Rice School of Law at the University of South Carolina, body cameras represent the latest chapter in America’s quest for a technological fix to the deeply rooted problem of unchecked state power. “Dash cams were supposed to solve racial profiling,” he says. “Tasers and pepper spray were supposed to solve undue force. We have this real, almost pathological draw to ‘silver bullet’ syndrome. And I say that as a supporter of body-worn cameras.” He later added, “We just said to police departments: ‘Here’s this tool. Figure out how you would like to use it.’ It shouldn’t be a surprise that they’re going to use it in a way that most benefits them.”

Jeff Schlanger, a former New York deputy commissioner who had an oversight role during the implementation of body-worn cameras and left the department in 2021, believes that the police have often failed to use the cameras for accountability and that political leaders need to do more. “Mayors, City Council members, all locally elected officials,” he says, “should be losing sleep over the lack of meaningful independent oversight of the police.”

When full footage has been released, often by prosecutors or after public pressure, it often contradicts initial police accounts. In 2015, a white officer in Cincinnati killed a Black man during a traffic stop. The officer said his life was in danger. But his body-camera video showed that was a lie, and he was prosecuted for murder. (Charges were dropped after two mistrials.) And in Philadelphia this August, an officer shot and killed a man after, the police said, he lunged at officers with “a weapon.” In fact, footage released by the district attorney — who charged the officer with murder — shows that the man was sitting in his own car.

In New York, Miguel Richards’ parents weren’t the only ones who had doubts about the department’s claims that the shooting was unavoidable. The footage the department released stopped right when the officers fired at Richards. It didn’t include the minutes after the shooting, and it didn’t include footage from other police units that responded.

Ruth Lowenkron, a disability rights lawyer who specializes in mental health issues, wanted to see it all. Working for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a legal-advocacy nonprofit, she and her colleagues, along with activists, had begun pushing the city to find an alternative to using the police as first responders to people in crisis. On her second day on the job, a sergeant shot and killed a 66-year-old woman who had schizophrenia and was holding a baseball bat in her Bronx apartment. The department’s own investigators concluded that the sergeant escalated the situation and caused the shooting.

Now, watching the video the department released of Richards’ shooting, Lowenkron feared that the same thing happened to him. The department’s edited footage showed the officers making a few attempts to connect with Richards early in the encounter. “What’s your name, man?” one officer asked. But they were also barking increasingly terse commands. “You are seconds away from getting shot,” one officer said. “Do you want to die?” A few minutes later, as one of them warned that Richards might have a gun, the officers fired.

Lowenkron filed a records request, certain that there was more to the story. In releasing the partial footage, the police commissioner had vowed that the “NYPD is committed to being as transparent as possible.” But nearly three weeks after her request, Lowenkron received a different message from one of the department’s records officers: “I must deny access to these records.”

Body-worn cameras were adopted by police departments across the country in the wake of widespread Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, sparked when Michael Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri. The officer who shot Brown was not equipped with a camera, and there was a dispute about what happened in the last moments of Brown’s life. Amid deep schisms over race, justice and policing, there was at least agreement that police interactions should be recorded. Brown’s mother pressed for the technology to become standard equipment. “Please,” she begged Missouri legislators, “let police-worn body cameras be a voice of truth and transparency.”

President Barack Obama put the cameras at the center of his plans to restore trust in policing. Cities quickly began spending millions on the devices, expenditures that continue today for storage and software. Los Angeles has spent nearly $60 million since getting cameras in 2016. In Philadelphia, where footage is rarely released, the cameras have cost taxpayers about $20 million. New York City has spent more than $50 million. But whether citizens benefit from the cameras they’re paying for is often up to the police, who have often been able to keep footage hidden from the public in even the most extreme cases. In 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama, an officer unleashed his police dog on a burglary suspect without warning, severing the Black man’s femoral artery and killing him. The police and the city have refused to release footage for five years, arguing that it could cause “civil unrest” and that the officers could face “embarrassment.” But a lawyer for the man’s family, which is suing the city, got a copy of the transcript in the discovery process and entered it into the court record. “Did you get a bite?” an officer asked the one who had the dog, according to the document. “Sure did, heh, heh,” the K-9 officer responded.

The secrecy undercuts the deterrent effect on officer behavior that many had presumed body cameras would produce. Three years before the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, body-camera video caught him kneeling on the necks of others. In 2017, Chauvin dragged a handcuffed Black woman out of her house, slammed her to the ground and then pressed his knee into her neck for nearly five minutes. Three months later, Chauvin hit a 14-year-old Black boy at least twice in the head with a heavy flashlight, choked him and pushed him against a wall. The boy cried out in pain and passed out. Chauvin pushed a knee into his neck for 15 minutes as the boy’s mother, reaching to help him, begged, “Please, please do not kill my son!”

The footage was left in the control of a department where impunity reigned. Supervisors had access to the recordings yet cleared Chauvin’s conduct in both cases. Minneapolis fought against releasing the videos, even after Chauvin pleaded guilty in December 2021 to federal civil rights violations in one of the cases. A judge finally ordered the city and the police to release the tapes this April, six years after Chauvin abused the boy. “Chauvin should have been fired in 2017,” says Robert Bennett, a lawyer who represented both of the victims. If the police had done that, “the city never burns. We’d have a downtown still. It’s a parade of horribles. All to keep something secret.”

A Department of Justice report from this summer found that the secrecy and impunity was all part of a larger pattern in the Minneapolis Police Department. Shootings, beatings and other abuse had routinely been captured on video. But the department didn’t make the footage public or mete out punishment.

There was a similar dynamic in Memphis, Tennessee, where officers in a street-crimes unit regularly abused residents. They wore body cameras but faced no consequences until the case of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten to death this January by officers in the unit, attracted national attention. The footage showed that some of the officers took their cameras off. Others knew they were being recorded and pummeled Nichols anyway. It was only after public outcry that the department took the rare step of releasing footage, which contradicted initial police accounts and led to state and federal charges for five officers.

Some politicians have often quietly enabled obstacles to this kind of accountability. When South Carolina became the first state in the nation to require the use of cameras in 2015, Nikki Haley, the governor at the time, made the announcement with the family of Walter Scott standing behind her. Scott was a Black man who, two months earlier, was stopped by the police for a broken taillight and was shot in the back and killed when he tried to run away. A witness filmed the shooting, and that video contradicted official police accounts.

“This is going to make sure Walter Scott did not die without us realizing that we have a problem,” Haley said as she signed the legislation. What the governor didn’t say was that the same law stipulated that footage from cameras is “not a public record subject to disclosure,” thus relieving police departments from any obligation to release it. And indeed, little footage has ever become public in South Carolina.

In 2021, York County sheriff’s deputies responding to a call for a wellness check found a young man sitting in his pickup truck with his mother standing next to him. They fired at him nearly 50 times. The sheriff, who refused to release body-camera footage, said the man pointed a shotgun at deputies. When the man, who survived, obtained the footage after suing, it showed no such thing. So far this year, the police in South Carolina have killed at least 19 people. The police have released footage in only three of those cases. When we asked one department, the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, why it had not, a spokesperson pointed to the law, writing, “We never release that footage.”

The pattern has become so common across the country — public talk of transparency followed by a deliberate undermining of the stated goal — that the policing-oversight expert Hans Menos, who led Philadelphia’s civilian police-oversight board until 2020, coined a term for it: the “body-cam head fake.” And there is no place that illustrates this as well as New York City, the home of the world’s largest municipal police force, some 36,000 officers strong.

New York’s adoption of body-worn cameras started with a moment of unintentional inspiration. In 2013, Judge Shira Scheindlin was hearing testimony in a federal lawsuit in which multiple advocacy groups claimed that the Police Department’s aggressive “stop and frisk” policy was racially biased and unconstitutional. One day during the trial, an expert witness for the city mentioned a new tool for accountability — body-worn cameras — in passing.

“My head snapped when I heard the words,” Scheindlin recalled this year. “I thought, ‘That could be a useful remedy!’”

Two months later, Scheindlin issued a historic ruling that New York’s stop-and-frisk practices were unconstitutional. She ordered the Police Department to begin piloting body-worn cameras, writing that they were “uniquely suited to addressing the constitutional harms at issue in this case.” Scheindlin laid out three ways the cameras would help: “First, they will provide a contemporaneous, objective record of stops and frisks.” She continued, “Second, the knowledge that an exchange is being recorded will encourage lawful and respectful interactions on the part of both parties. Third, the recordings will diminish the sense on the part of those who file complaints that it is their word against the police.”

But in a preview of obstacles that would follow, the department was slow to roll out the devices, even as they were becoming common in other cities. More than two years after Scheindlin’s ruling, the department hired researchers at New York University to conduct a survey about what residents wanted from a body-camera project. The community’s answers were overwhelming and clear: transparency and disclosure.

Officers, however, wanted the opposite. They were concerned that the recordings would “show a different side of the story than what would otherwise be told,” according to a separate NYU survey. To Scheindlin and the plaintiffs in the stop-and-frisk case, that was exactly the point.

When the department released its policy in April 2017, it was clear whose opinions held more sway. No video would automatically become public. Anyone that requested it would have to go through an opaque, often slow-moving Freedom of Information process — in which the department itself would be the arbiter of what would be released (though the courts could review that decision).

The policy blunted the technology’s potential for accountability in other ways. Officers could decide when to start filming, instead of at the beginning of all interactions as the public wanted. And while the public had little access to footage, the police had privileged access: Officers who were the subjects of complaints would be allowed to watch the footage before having to give any statements — something that could allow them to tailor their accounts to the video.

The policy was “so flawed that the pilot program may do little to protect New Yorkers’ civil rights,” Ian Head and Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights wrote in a guest essay in The New York Times. “Instead, it might shield police officers from accountability when they engage in misconduct.”

Still, on April 27, 2017, Commissioner James O’Neill and Mayor Bill de Blasio held a news conference at a precinct in Washington Heights to celebrate the rollout of body-worn cameras. Stepping up to the lectern, O’Neill said he was initially skeptical of the cameras but had become a believer. “I’m totally convinced now that this is the way forward,” he said. “These cameras have a great potential to de-escalate.”

Then the mayor went to the lectern. Officers had long felt that de Blasio, a self-proclaimed progressive, was too supportive of Black Lives Matter protests and not sufficiently supportive of the police. That sentiment turned into rage when a man espousing hatred of the police murdered two officers in late 2014. Hundreds of police officers turned their backs on the mayor at the funerals. Ever since, de Blasio had been working to repair the relationship.

“This is an historic day for New York City,” de Blasio said, with O’Neill by his side. “This is the first day of the era of body-worn cameras, and that means we are going on a pathway of transparency and accountability that will benefit everyone.”

Five months later, officers killed Miguel Richards, making his case the first in which the potential of body-camera video would be tested. But Ruth Lowenkron, the public-interest attorney who filed a request for the footage, was getting little from the Police Department. After it rejected her initial request, she appealed the decision. The department sent her some redacted footage but again rejected her request for all of it.

Disclosing the full footage would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” the department wrote. Whose privacy — the dead man’s or the officers’ — was not explained. Releasing the full footage, the department insisted, could “endanger the life or safety of any person.”

The letter came from the department’s legal unit, led by its deputy commissioner, Larry Byrne, who was known for his fierce advocacy for the department. From the outset of the body-worn-camera program, Byrne made it clear that he was resistant to widespread release of footage. “They are not public records in the sense that, because the officer turns the camera on, they are now in the public domain,” Byrne told NY1 in 2015. In fact, he insisted, “most of this footage” would never be made public.

Lowenkron kept requesting the Richards footage and kept getting rejected or sent redacted video. In July 2018, she and her colleagues decided to file a lawsuit in state court demanding the full footage. They even got a former Police Department lawyer, Stuart Parker, to help litigate the suit pro bono. The department’s various explanations for its denials “pissed me off,” Parker recalls. He retired from the department as an assistant commissioner in 2016, the year before cameras were widely rolled out. But he had been excited by their potential and was frustrated by the department’s kneejerk secrecy. “There’s a good side to the department,” he says, “but there’s always been a self-serving dark side to it too.”

In response to the suit, the department argued in legal filings that it had blurred the footage “in order to protect the privacy of both Richards and his family.” But Lowenkron and her team had obtained affidavits from Richards’ parents saying that the department never asked them whether they wanted the footage released or redacted. And what the Richardses wanted, they said, was for the full footage to be released to the public.

Public disclosure of footage isn’t the only path to hold officers in New York accountable for misconduct. For 70 years, the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board had been vested with the responsibility to investigate New Yorkers’ allegations against the police. From the start, though, its powers were weak. The agency was actually part of the Police Department, and its board consisted of three deputy police commissioners. The department fought efforts over the years to make the agency independent. In the face of a plan in the mid-1960s to include civilians on the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the head of the largest police union, then called the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said, “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.”

The agency eventually became independent in 1993 after stiff opposition months before from off-duty officers. Thousands of them — along with Rudy Giuliani, then a mayoral aspirant after losing the previous election — staged a huge protest outside City Hall, with many of them going on to block the Brooklyn Bridge. After the changes, the review board still relied on an often noncooperative Police Department for records, and its investigations frequently petered out amid competing accounts. And like many civilian oversight boards across the country, in the rare cases when it substantiated misconduct, it could only recommend discipline to the police commissioner, who could and often did ignore it.

Many civilians, whom the board relied on to initiate complaints, had long grown skeptical of the agency’s ability to ensure that officer misconduct had consequences. But the advent of body-camera video promised to fundamentally change how the agency worked. For the first time, staff members would have an objective record of the incidents they investigated. That was Nicole Napolitano’s hope when she joined the review board as its new director of policy and advocacy in September 2017 — the same year body cameras were rolled out in New York and one week after officers killed Richards. “We talked about it in detail” at the agency, she says of the initial footage of the Richards shooting. “We thought, ‘Look at what body-worn cameras can show us.’”

Napolitano, who is married to a retired detective, knew it would be a challenge. As a senior policy manager in the Office of the Inspector General for the New York Police Department, she had seen how the department could simply ignore the recommendations in her reports. Napolitano hoped she would have more direct impact in her new, more senior position at the review board. But what she hadn’t appreciated was how much the police controlled the literal tools of their own oversight.

As with most civilian boards across the country, the agency did not have its own access to footage. Like the public, it, too, had to rely on the cooperation of the department. To try to obtain footage, the board had to navigate a baroque multistep process. Written requests were submitted to a department “liaison” unit, which in turn forwarded them to the legal unit for review. Then the department had to locate the footage, which was a significant undertaking because it wasn’t cataloging the footage in any systematic way. Unlike in many other cities, the department’s cameras had no GPS location data. If a civilian making a complaint didn’t know an officer’s name or badge number, investigators and even the department could have a hard time finding footage.

Perhaps most problematic for Napolitano, though, was the fact that the review board’s investigators had to agree to a strict set of conditions before watching videos of incidents. If they spotted other, unrelated misconduct, they were not allowed to investigate it. “If you were setting up a system to be shitty,” one agency insider says, “this is the system you’d create.”

At times, the department’s animosity toward the board was palpable. Napolitano remembers one meeting in 2017 between board officials and Kerry Sweet, then a top official at the department’s legal bureau who helped oversee the body-camera rollout. As other police brass shuffled in, Sweet said they had missed a chance to “bomb the room” when only board officials were there, which would have “solved everything.” (Sweet, who has since retired, says he doesn’t recall saying that, but added, “On reflection, it should have been an airstrike.”)

Napolitano and her colleagues noticed an even more troubling trend: The department would often tell the review board that the footage it requested didn’t exist — only for the civilian agency to later discover that wasn’t true. According to an analysis the agency put out in early 2020, this happened in nearly 1 of every 5 cases.

Napolitano thought there was a straightforward solution to the department’s stonewalling: The review board should be able to directly log in to the department’s system where footage is stored. That’s how it worked with civilian oversight boards in a few other major American cities, including Chicago, which revamped civilian oversight after Laquan McDonald was killed in 2014 and the city tried to withhold footage that contradicted officers’ accounts. Chicago’s oversight board now not only has direct access to videos but also regularly releases footage publicly, and its investigators have used it to successfully push for officers to be fired for misconduct. Napolitano didn’t see a reason for it to be otherwise in New York. So in her first semiannual report, at the end of 2017, she noted the challenges of getting footage — and called on the city to give the review board direct access. Both the department and City Hall, Napolitano says, “freaked” out.

“It was a rough time for de Blasio when it came to public safety,” Napolitano added, referring to the mayor’s tenuous relationship with the police. “In a dispute between CCRB and NYPD, City Hall always chose the NYPD. Always.”

“I don’t agree,” de Blasio says. “The tension between the CCRB and the NYPD is natural and built-in. I decided each issue on the merits and according to my values.” He went on, “The blunter truth is when a progressive challenges the police culture and the police unions and the status quo of American policing, the left is not going to have their back. You’re not getting that thank-you card. And the right will viciously attack.”

While the department fought Lowenkron and Napolitano on the release of body-camera footage, there was one group that had access to all of it and could use it to check for misconduct: the department’s own investigators. After every police shooting, detectives with the Force Investigation Division review the incident to see whether officers complied with department policy. The Richards case was the first time body-worn-camera footage could let them see what actually happened in a killing by officers. As investigators dug through the video and interviewed officers in the weeks and months after the shooting, they saw a far more complicated picture than the one the police commissioner painted.

As the tape began, one officer, Mark Fleming, beamed his flashlight into the far side of Richards’ nearly bare, unlit bedroom. Richards was standing perfectly still in the dark, seemingly catatonic, wearing a blue polo shirt and sunglasses and holding a knife in his left hand.

Department guidelines for dealing with people in crisis who do not pose an immediate threat say officers should try to “isolate and contain” the person. “The primary duty of all members of the service is to preserve human life,” department policy states. Officers are also instructed to wait for a supervisor’s permission before trying to subdue someone in crisis.

At first, it appeared that the officers who encountered Richards were following their training. “Look, we could shut the door,” Officer Redmond Murphy suggested to his partner. But Fleming, who had served more years in the department, quickly rejected the idea. He kept telling Richards to drop the knife, and he radioed for an officer with a Taser.

Two officers from the specially trained Emergency Services Unit, which deals with people experiencing mental health crises, arrived. Then Murphy said he thought he saw something, perhaps a gun, in Richards’ right hand, which was obscured behind a backpack on the bed. “Hold up,” one of the ESU officers told Fleming and Murphy before heading back downstairs to grab protective gear. “I don’t know if it’s a toy or a gun,” Murphy quickly added.

As the specialists went downstairs, the officer with the Taser, Jesus Ramos, went upstairs and joined Fleming and Murphy outside Richards’ room. “Do you want to take him down now?” Ramos asked them. “Yeah,” they both answered.

At nearly the same moment, a radio command came from headquarters, emphasizing department guidelines. “Isolate and contain,” the dispatcher told the officers. “Use nonlethal force whenever possible.” As Ramos lifted his Taser and stepped into the room, Fleming — who later said Richards was raising his arm — fired his gun. Murphy fired, too. It’s impossible to see that moment in the grainy, shaky footage. The clearest angle would most likely have been Fleming’s camera, but it was covered by his arm as he held his flashlight.

Fleming and Murphy fired 16 times, hitting Richards seven times, including twice in the chest, rupturing his aorta. As gunshots rang out, the supervisor they were supposed to wait for arrived. (None of the officers responded to requests for comment.)

The internal investigators asked the officers to explain. “We kind of handle everything on our own,” Murphy offered. An internal investigator pressed Fleming about what had “situationally changed” and prompted the decision to “take him at that point.” Fleming said everything changed once his partner said Richards might have a gun. “I perceived that his intentions were lethal,” Fleming said. But his answers suggested that he hadn’t fully grasped Richards’ mental state. “Why would any sane person hide a fake gun?” Fleming asked.

When the investigators asked why the two officers did not broadcast that Richards was an “EDP” — or an emotionally disturbed person — with a knife, as protocol dictates, Murphy told them he and Fleming had handled people in crisis before. Asked why they made the decision to use force, Murphy simply said, “We wanted to, like, end it.”

While the Force Investigation Division ultimately concluded that the officers had been “justified” in shooting — because they were facing an “individual armed with a knife and an imitation firearm” — the investigators also said that Fleming and Murphy should still be punished. Richards, their September 2018 internal report noted, “was contained and posed no immediate threat of danger.” And the officers violated policy by not asking permission from their supervisor before they acted. The department’s full investigative record was first reported by the independent journalist Michael Hayes in his 2023 book, “The Secret Files.” The review recommended that the officers face disciplinary charges that could ultimately result in their firing.

But in New York, as in almost all cities in the United States, the police commissioner has absolute power over punishment. In March 2019, O’Neill, who had extolled the promise of body cameras just two years earlier, overruled his own investigators. He decided that neither Fleming nor Murphy would be punished for killing Richards. Instead, the commissioner docked them three vacation days for something else they did: stopping for pizza before responding to the call for the wellness check. (O’Neill did not respond to questions or requests for comment.)

It would be another three months before anyone outside the department would see the full footage. That June, a New York judge ruled that the “public is vested with an inherent right to know” and ordered the department to turn over the recordings to Lowenkron’s organization.

She received a package with a DVD a month later from the department. Bracing herself, she sat down to view it on her computer. The footage that the department publicly released cut off when the officers fired. Lowenkron now saw the aftermath: Richards collapsed to the floor, crumpled and bleeding in the same spot where he had been standing rigidly seconds before.

“He’s still alive,” Fleming said.

“Holy shit,” Murphy replied. “Just fucking cuff him.”

The officers then flipped over Richards, severely injured, so roughly that his head could be heard bouncing off the floor.

They searched around the room for the firearm they thought Richards had. Eventually, Fleming found a palm-size, silver-colored plastic toy gun. “It’s some fucking little thing,” he said. (The video does not show Richards holding the toy gun.) More than three minutes passed before anyone administered any type of aid to the dying man. It was an Emergency Services Unit specialist who retrieved medical equipment after hearing the shots.

Outside the apartment building, more video recorded other officers milling about. One told a colleague, “They were just hurling fucking shots.”

Lowenkron was shocked. Officers had shot a young man and roughly handled him as he bled to death. “The utter disrespect,” Lowenkron says. “It was a horror movie.”

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest would go on to share the footage with journalists. It would also use the footage in a webinar for mental health advocates in November 2020. “The point,” Lowenkron told me, “was to get more people engaged on this issue: transforming New York and this country’s response to people in crisis.”

But by then, for another man in distress, it was too late.

In April 2019, one month after O’Neill decided against punishing the officers for the Richards shooting, another officer shot and killed a man named Kawaski Trawick.

The circumstances were remarkably similar to those in the Richards case. Trawick was also a young Black man who lived in the Bronx and was experiencing a mental health crisis in his own apartment. He was also holding a knife when the police arrived. And he was also shot soon afterward. At the Civilian Complaint Review Board, Napolitano was immediately struck by the parallels: “I remember reading the headline on Trawick and thinking, ‘Didn’t I read this already?’”

This time, though, the victim’s family filed a complaint with the review board, providing an opening for civilian investigators to use body-worn-camera footage to make a case that the department and others couldn’t ignore.

But despite repeated requests over many months, the department wouldn’t share the footage — or any other records — with the review board, leaving the oversight agency effectively unable to begin its own investigation of the case. The refusal was in line with the department’s longstanding practice to withhold footage from the board until the department’s internal investigation was over, a process that often takes more than a year. Such delays can effectively torpedo the review board’s investigations: Under New York civil-service law, any disciplinary cases against police officers must be brought within 18 months of the incident.

In the Trawick case, the review board obtained the full body-camera video in January 2021 — more than a year and a half after the killing — and only after a state judge ordered the department to hand it over to Lowenkron’s organization, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which had sued for it. The judge determined that the department had been withholding the footage “in bad faith.”

What it showed was even more damning than what was captured in the Richards shooting. As the police entered his apartment, Trawick demanded to know, “Why are you in my home?” One officer, Herbert Davis, who was Black and more experienced, then tried to stop his white junior counterpart, Brendan Thompson, from using force. “We ain’t gonna tase him,” Davis said in the video.

Thompson didn’t listen. Instead, he fired his Taser at Trawick, sending roughly 50,000 volts pulsing through him. As Trawick started rushing toward the officers, Thompson lifted his gun and prepared to fire. “No, no — don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” Davis said, pushing his partner’s arm down. But Thompson fired four shots, hitting Trawick twice and killing him almost instantly, 112 seconds after they arrived at the apartment. (Davis and Thompson did not reply to requests for comment.)

There was also troubling footage of the aftermath of the shooting. Officers swarmed outside Trawick’s apartment. “Who’s injured?” a sergeant asked. Two officers replied in near unison: “Nobody. Just a perp.”

With all that in hand, the review board completed its investigation in June 2021. The agency, through one of the few powers it had gained over the years, can file and prosecute disciplinary cases against officers — which triggers a Police Department trial, after which a departmental judge sends a provisional decision to the police commissioner, who makes the final call.

This September, the police judge overseeing the Trawick case recommended that there should be no discipline. Her reason had nothing to do with the shooting itself; in fact, the judge wrote that she had “serious doubts” about the decisions of the officer who killed Trawick. But the review board, she said, had failed to file charges within the 18-month statute of limitations, as outlined under state law. In the end, the department’s refusal to give the footage to the review board had effectively run out the clock on any chance the officers would be punished.

“That should not be tolerated,” says Jeff Schlanger, the former deputy commissioner. “Both CCRB and NYPD are city agencies. This is something the mayor needs to resolve.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, huge demonstrations for racial justice and against police brutality rolled across the country and the world. It was a global reckoning brought on by footage — the video, recorded by a teenager on her smartphone for more than eight minutes, showing Derek Chauvin ending Floyd’s life.

Napolitano and her team at the review board had collected data showing how footage could make a difference in New York too. Access to body-camera footage roughly doubled the likelihood that agency investigators would be able to decide a case on its merits rather than dismiss it as inconclusive. But the backlog was growing. That May, the board filed 212 requests with the Police Department for body-worn-camera footage — and the department sent only 33 responses. (While the pandemic slowed the work of all city agencies, the backlog predated it.)

“The withholding of footage stops investigations and prevents the CCRB from providing adequate and meaningful oversight of the NYPD,” an internal agency memo warned. “The situation for New York City oversight of the police has steadily grown worse during the duration of a BWC program intended primarily to aid oversight.”

Napolitano campaigned internally for a law that would take away the department’s absolute control over footage and give the review board its own access. That November, she was let go, along with three other staff members who had sent pointed emails and memos about the department’s withholding of footage. The four filed a lawsuit claiming that their firing violated their First Amendment rights and received an undisclosed settlement. A review-board spokesperson wrote in an email that the agency has “publicly and repeatedly called on legislators to support the fight for direct access. No employee has ever been fired for supporting direct access to BWC footage.”

This spring, the City Council speaker, Adrienne Adams, and the New York City public advocate, Jumaane Williams, sponsored a bill that would give the review board direct access to footage so that it wouldn’t be beholden to the department for cooperation during investigations. “There are difficult split-second decisions that have to happen” in policing, Williams told me. “But if we’re not able to look at the same thing, if we have to take the word of the NYPD, that doesn’t make this conversation any easier.”

The Police Department has opposed the bill. A department official insisted at a City Council hearing in March that the department “does not fear transparency.” But the official argued that it would be an “insurmountable obstacle” to give the review board direct access while following state confidentiality laws. The bill has been stalled for months.

The city, meanwhile, paid out at least $121 million in settlements last year for lawsuits alleging misconduct by police officers — the highest total in five years.

With footage remaining in the control of the Police Department, body-worn cameras have made little difference to the public. This year, a federal court monitor wrote a scathing report about persistent problems with stop-and-frisk, the unconstitutional policing tactic that prompted Scheindlin to order the department to adopt body cameras a decade ago. The monitor found that contrary to Scheindlin’s expectations, police supervisors weren’t using footage to flag misconduct. In a sample of cases the monitor looked at, supervisors reviewing footage of stop-and-frisk encounters concluded that 100% of the cases they looked at were proper stops. The court monitor reviewed the same footage and found that 37% of the stops were unconstitutional.

“It was an experiment,” Scheindlin says, one that didn’t anticipate issues like control over footage. Scheindlin, who stepped down from the bench in 2016, says she now believes that the Police Department should no longer be the sole custodian of its own video. “That troubles me,” she says. “It should always be somebody independent.”

In interviews with a half-dozen former commanders and high-level officials, most of whom were involved in the body-camera program itself, they said that despite its public pronouncements, the department hasn’t committed to using footage for accountability. “Body cams are essential, if done right,” says a high-ranking commander who just retired and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works in law enforcement. “They are a game changer.” He added, “If there’s a problem, you flag — and potentially there’s discipline. But that’s not happening in most cases.” Instead, he says, body cameras have become “an exercise in just work they have to do. It’s a culture thing.”

Rudy Hall has a particularly useful vantage point. He was part of the team that rolled out the body cameras, visiting police departments around the country to see how they were using the technology, and has gone on to work for the federal monitor overseeing the department’s compliance with Scheindlin’s now-decade-old order on stop-and-frisk. “I watch a lot of body-cam videos,” Hall told me. “I have absolutely seen supervisors approve problematic conduct.”

“Body-worn cameras have not been exploited the way they should be,” says Jeff Schlanger, the former deputy commissioner. “The way to true reform is through using body cams as an early-warning system, as a way to correct small mistakes before they become big mistakes. But there weren’t a lot of discussions about it. The NYPD needs to do a lot better.”

One of the most comprehensive studies of the use of body cameras, a 2019 meta-analysis led by researchers at George Mason University, recommended that police departments consider using footage the way sports teams use game tape, to regularly review and improve performance. That’s essentially what the New Orleans Police Department did after the U.S. Department of Justice put it under federal oversight about a decade ago in response to the police killings of several Black men and persistent police violence. Body cameras were a “critical engine for us to continuously evaluate performance,” says Danny Murphy, who ran a unit at the department overseeing compliance with the federal mandate.

Four auditors were hired to join the police force and comb through footage. They looked to make sure that officers were using their cameras and that supervisors were flagging any problematic behavior. “If officers know they’re being viewed, if supervisors know they’re being reviewed, it creates a pressure for accountability,” says Murphy, who left the department four years ago. A 2020 report from the city’s civilian oversight agency — which has direct access to footage — noted a reduction in both the use of force and citizen complaints, which the department attributed to “the use of the body-worn cameras and the increased scrutiny and oversight these cameras provide leadership.” The police in New Orleans also regularly and quickly release video from shootings and other major incidents. But in the end, it’s the police chief who has the final say on discipline.

During his tenure at the New York Police Department, Schlanger had, in fact, started a kind of internal oversight system similar to the one in New Orleans. Schlanger and other senior officials would meet with each of the department’s 77 precincts every six months and look at body-camera footage to identify problematic trends and officers. “It was CompStat for constitutional policing,” Schlanger says, referring to the department’s data-heavy program for tracking crime. “If we saw a precinct doing poorly, we’d work to help them. It made a difference.”

The department quietly ended the review program last year.

A civil suit on behalf of Miguel Richards’ estate was filed against the city in 2018. New York is seeking the dismissal of the case. A judge has been considering the request for two and a half years. “I want answers,” his mother told me, “and haven’t been able to get them.”

The three officers involved in the Richards shooting were honored in 2018 by the largest New York police union, the Police Benevolent Association, which gave them its Finest of the Finest award for “extremely brave and tactically sound action” in the Richards shooting, noting that “the officers had no choice but to open fire.”

The officers were later deposed in the lawsuit. One of them, Mark Fleming, said in his testimony in September 2020 that he had learned a lesson: that the Emergency Services Unit — whose help he told department investigators he didn’t need — is in fact better equipped and trained to deal with situations that involve people having a mental health crisis.

It’s not clear what, if any, lessons the department itself has taken in. Since Richards’ death in 2017, when cameras were widely rolled out, officers have killed at least 11 people in crisis. There is no evidence that officers have been punished in any of the cases.

On a Sunday morning in the Bronx this spring, there was another shooting. Santo de la Cruz called a city emergency line. His son, 42-year-old Raul de la Cruz, was in the middle of a schizophrenic episode and had posted a disturbing video on Facebook that morning. Wearing camouflage clothing and a hat with a patch of an Israeli flag, Raul complained about racist police officers. His father called 311, avoiding 911 because he was afraid of what would happen if the police showed up. “I thought they would send someone capable of dealing with a situation like that,” he says in Spanish. “Because I was calling for a sick person, not to send the police to shoot him up.” But it was the police who arrived, with body cameras rolling. And Raul was holding a knife.

The officers shot him 28 seconds after arriving. He was hospitalized for more than a month before being released, having lost a kidney and part of his liver. A department commander cited the body-camera footage when he gave a brief news conference the day of the shooting to describe what happened. “This situation was fast, volatile and dangerous,” he said. The officers’ “quick response saved at least one civilian and protected themselves.”

But the department has not released the footage or commented in the eight months since.

Lowenkron’s colleagues at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest have once again requested the video, so far to no avail. The department has also withheld the footage from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, per the practice of sharing records with the agency only after its own investigation is done.

On Dec. 5, weeks after we sent questions to the department about that practice, the department signed a memorandum of understanding with the board to send footage to it within 90 days of a request.

But for now, nobody outside the department knows exactly what happened in the de la Cruz shooting, including the family. They have not heard anything from the department. They want to see the footage.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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