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A New York state judge ruled last week that the New York City Police Department illegally withheld body-worn footage in two police shootings, including the killing of Kawaski Trawick.
The judge said at an October hearing in the case that the NYPD had been operating in “bad faith.”
Body-worn cameras have been widely adopted by police departments over the past decade and can provide crucial evidence in misconduct cases. But like many police departments, the NYPD maintains full control over the footage, deciding what gets released and when.
“It troubles me that the NYPD is the one deciding whether and when to release video,” said Shira Scheindlin, who during her time as a federal judge ordered the department to experiment with the cameras while ruling that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics were unconstitutional.
The NYPD declined to release footage of the April 2019 shooting of Trawick for more than a year and a half, citing an ongoing investigation.
When some of the footage was released last year by the Bronx district attorney, it showed that one officer had tried to stop his partner from shooting Trawick.
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest sued the NYPD last year to get the full footage of the shooting and the aftermath. A day before a hearing on the case, the NYPD released the footage, saying the department’s investigation was complete.
That footage showed that after a sergeant arrived and asked who was injured, two officers responded in near-unison, “Nobody. Just a perp.”
Trawick had been shot in his own apartment 112 seconds after officers arrived at his door. Trawick, 32, had struggled with his mental health and with drugs. He had called 911 after he locked himself out of his apartment. “Why are you in my home?” he had repeatedly asked the officers.
A more experienced Black officer had tried to stop his younger white partner from using force against Trawick, who had been standing in his apartment about 7 feet away with a bread knife and stick. But the younger officer fired his Taser at Trawick anyway and then shot him after he ran toward the officers.
An NYPD investigation cleared the officers. “There was no discipline as no wrongdoing was found,” the department said.
The city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board has brought disciplinary charges against both officers. But even if the officers are found guilty after an administrative trial, the commissioner of the NYPD will still have complete discretion over discipline.
In ruling on the NYPD’s lack of disclosure, Judge Eileen Rakower ordered the department to reimburse the complainants, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, for their legal fees. In addition to footage from the Trawick shooting, the suit had also demanded the full footage from the police shooting of Michael Cordero, which occurred just weeks before Trawick was shot.
The NYPD rejected NYLPI’s initial public records requests for the footage. Rakower said at an earlier hearing that “these blanket denials were in bad faith” and “were improper in the way that they were done.”
Asked about the judge’s ruling, the NYPD told ProPublica that the release of footage can be delayed “if the investigation is complex, a court issues an order delaying or preventing release of the footage, or additional time is needed to allow a civilian depicted in the video, or their family, to view the video in advance.” (Here is the NYPD’s full statement.)
In fighting the NYLPI’s requests for the videos of the Trawick shooting, the NYPD had argued that the full release of the footage would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” But Trawick’s family told ProPublica the police never asked them if they opposed the release of the footage.
Following the racial justice protests around the world after the murder of George Floyd, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the NYPD would quickly release body-worn camera footage from any shootings by officers.
The mayor’s office did not respond to questions from ProPublica about whether the NYPD’s lack of disclosure in the Trawick and Cordero shootings was consistent with that policy.
The office of Mayor-elect Eric Adams also did not respond to a request for comment.
Scheindlin, who ordered the NYPD to begin using the body-worn cams, said that control of footage shouldn’t be left in the hands of the police. “You can’t be your own judge,” she said.
Lucas Waldron contributed research.
Want to learn more? Join Eric Umansky and other reporters on Thursday, Dec. 2, for “Shielded,” a live virtual event about how law enforcement agencies shield themselves from accountability.