August 16, 2022

SECRECY: NY lawmakers just voted to hide police bodycam footage, roll back last year’s reforms

SECRECY: NY lawmakers just voted to hide police body cam footage, roll back last year's reforms

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When Senate Bill 6017 passed the New York State legislature in 2021, it was another step forward on the road to insuring police reform and accountability.

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The reform legislation reinstated the previously carved out Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) which makes it difficult for the police to keep — or delay — key evidence like bodycam footage from the public.

Sponsored by NY State Senator James Skoufis (D), the bill:

“requires a particularized and specific justification for denial of access to records under the Freedom of Information Law; relates to exemption from disclosures under the Freedom of Information Law of certain law enforcement related records and to records identifying victims.”

In layman’s terms, if law enforcement officials refuse to share, delay or withhold pertinent information from the public, there had better be a really good reason.

A memo in the legislation, written by Skoufis, explains the bill’s context and intent.

“The purpose of this legislation is to clarify certain provisions of FOIL and other disclosure laws to make sure that people are not wrongfully denied access to police records,” Skoufis explains.

Though passed last year, SB6017 only went into effect a few weeks ago. And now it’s in jeopardy.

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Sitting on Governor Kathy Hochul’s desk is an amended version of the bill, that will undo everything that the reform law enacted.

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I reached out to the Governor’s office for a statement on whether or not she has actually read the bill and if she intends to sign it. She was unavailable for comment, so I left my contact information and am still waiting for a return call.

Senate Bill S7734, submitted under the guise of “technical” corrections, is misleading. The added provisions will not only make it easier for police to hide the bodycam and dashcam videos from the public, but it would also do away with the judicial review requirement.  The language in the amended bill is clear.

“This is a chapter amendment that makes changes to provisions of L.2021, .808, by removing the requirement that a judicial hearing be held to determine whether documents related to a judicial proceeding should be withheld pursuant to a FOIL request; adding language to require an agency, that is not the assigned investigative agency in an ongoing investigation, to obtain certification from the assigned investigative agency that the FOIL-requested records may be withheld because they would impede an ongoing investigation; and removing language amending the civil rights law made by the underlying chapter.”

Summary: All an officer has to say, is that a case is “ongoing,” or “under investigation.” This will allow the department to stall the release of requested evidence. Even if the law enforcement agency in question agrees to turn over some footage, any government agency can object.

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Critical of the amendment,  NY attorney James Henry had this to say:

“This is a disaster for holding police accountable and for New York State’s Freedom of Information Law.”

Accountability and transparency are crucial to restoring the public’s faith in law enforcement agencies around the country, begging the question — if they didn’t do anything wrong, what have they got to hide?

Senator Skoufis, the sponsor of the original bill, has been silent on the changes made. An assistant in his office directed me to Skoufis’ Communications Director, Emma Fuentes’ for a statement. As of the time of publication of this article, I am still awaiting a reply to my email request for comment on the law enforcement reform bill.

Follow Ty Ross on Twitter @cooltxchick

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Ty Ross

News journalist for Washington Press and Occupy Democrats.

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