Let’s go to the tape — oh wait, we can’t.
Cops say they are “unable to locate” the police security camera footage that showed them beating up a Sunset Park teen last year.
Police initially accused the 17-year-old of assaulting the officers, and though the charges were eventually dropped — that was only after dragging the kid through court for 10 months. And now a Sunset Park activist plans to sue the police department for withholding the videotape that would have cleared the kid’s name quicker.
“In this digital age, it’s ridiculous for them to say they cant find video footage — how do they archive this?” said Dennis Flores, who requested the footage through a Freedom of Information Law request after the department failed to provide the video when the teen’s lawyer subpoenaed it.
Police beat up and arrested teen during last year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, and the footage shot by several police cameras on Fifth Avenue should have caught the altercation and could have quickly ended the kid’s court ordeal, according to his attorney. But when the attorney subpoenaed the footage and Flores requested it through public information laws, the cops claimed to have misplaced the video for the specific time period they asked for.
The department was “unable to locate records responsive to [the] request,” states the denial letter Flores received.
Footage from police cameras should be kept for at least 30 days, according to department guidelines. And Flores made his request on July 7 last year — 29 days after the June 8 incident, a copy of his request shows.
Department representatives did not respond to questions about the department’s video retention policy or why it couldn’t find the footage.
In March, this paper made a Freedom of Information Law request for the police department’s internal communications regarding Flores’s request, but the department has yet to fulfill the request.
The Sunset Park teen’s case isn’t the only one stymied by poor evidence-sharing, according to a representative from the borough’s largest public defender.
“We routinely have a difficult time getting them to turn over tapes,” said Linda Hoff, director of training for Brooklyn Defenders Service.
Police and prosecutors don’t have to share information — including footage captured by police cameras — with the defense until after a jury is sworn in, but many cases don’t make it to trial, Hoff said. Meanwhile, defendants languish in jail while evidence that could exonerate them sits in police headquarters and on prosecutors’ desks, she said.
“Someone might be sitting in jail for a year or more,” Hoff said. “Those recordings should be turned over at arraignments.”
Prosecutors, however, don’t appear to face the same hurdles in obtaining police footage, the according to the borough’s top legal eagle.
“We haven’t run into any difficulties that I know about it,” said District Attorney Ken Thompson. “Each case stands on its own, but no one has brought that to my attention. We work closely with [police], and we get the footage if its there. It may take some time — we may not be able to get it right away — but I haven’t heard of any problems we’ve had in that regard.”
Flores and Hoff both said that public access to police footage is particularly important as the city embraces a proposal to outfit officers with body cameras, and one Brooklyn pol has made it clear he agrees.
State Sen. Daniel Squadron (D–Brooklyn Heights) announced a bill last week to ensure that police body-camera footage is subject to Freedom of Information Law requests.
“Body cameras have broad support, and the potential to protect everyone involved. But, they only work if the information increases transparency and safeguards privacy,” Squadron said.
But the current 30-day retention period for police video is way too short. Following a body-camera pilot program, the inspector general overseeing the police department said that even a one-year retention policy was too short, instead recommending police keep video for at least 18 months. That would coincide with statutes of limitations for civilian and internal investigations into police misconduct, according to the inspector general’s report.
For his part, Flores hopes his lawsuit will result in a change in departmental policy to be more forthcoming with civilian requests for police video.
“I’m definitely not seeking any money,” Flores said. “I am trying to get some sort of reform.”