The New York Police Department has yanked thousands of police body cams from deployment after a unit “burst into flames” while an officer was wearing it in Staten Island, according to the Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast wrote the type of camera in question, a Vievu model LE-5, is in widespread deployment with “about 2,990 cameras being used by police officers in 15 out of 77 police precincts” across the city. In total, the NYPD has over 15,500 cameras in the field. According to the Daily Beast, the incident appeared to involve a defective battery pack:
The incident occurred around midnight outside a Staten Island police precinct. “[The camera] unexpectedly began to smoke and fell from his shirt to the ground,” the official said. “It then caught fire and was damaged.”
The officer was not injured, but the incident is a black eye for the new pilot program that has incorporated the new body cameras into the force.
Following the incident, Police Commissioner James O’Neill issued an internal order suspending any use of the model LE-5 body cameras due to the “possible product defect.” The order said the police was removing cameras from the field out of an abundance of caution as it investigates the matter. The other styles of body cameras used by the NYPD are not affected as a part of the order and will remain in the field.
The NYPD told the Daily Beast that all models of the camera had been removed from officers as a precaution, though Vievu LE-4 cameras will remain on the street. Wall Street Journal law enforcement reporter Zolan Kanno-Youngs noted that the incident is likely to exacerbate some tensions with the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which is currently suing to keep body cam recordings shielded from public disclosure under the theory they constitute a form of personnel record.
Expect the @NYCPBA, which currently has a lawsuit filed against the city for the release of bodycamera footage, to take advantage of this incident. @NYCMayor has emphasized the bodycameras — and the release of footage — when making the case for improved police accountability.
— Zolan Kanno-Youngs (@KannoYoungs) October 21, 2018
Last year, the Center for Constitutional Rights challenged the NYPD’s body cam policies, saying the department would give officers too much leeway to selectively record encounters with the public and the lack of a straightforward process for the public to see the resulting footage. A federal court in Manhattan later ruled the program could go forward, though according to a later CCR press release, the organisation did win a ruling compelling the NYPD to record all “Level 1 and 2 investigative encounters” (i.e., low-level interactions with citizens) as part of the pilot program.
Though body cams have often been touted as a way for police departments to de-escalate situations (the theory going that people generally behave better when they’re being recorded), a landmark study by Washington, DC’s The Lab released in October 2017 found no evidence that body cams resulted in less civilian complaints or use of force against officers equipped with them. Other studies have found much more mixed results, such as one in the UK and California that found a 93 per cent decrease in complaints and another that actually found a small increase in violence against body cam-equipped officers. The discrepancy may boil down to the culture of various police departments and what policies are in place regulating body cam use.
Other issues with body cam deployment by officers have included research showing major lines of the equipment have numerous security vulnerabilities that could allow attackers to know their location, manipulate footage, or remotely hijack the devices and use them to stream video, according to Wired. Josh Mitchell, a consultant with security firm Nuix, told the magazine that none of the five popular brands he examined used proper cryptographic signing to confirm the integrity of firmware updates or recorded footage, and many used wifi radios that broadcast in predictable ways that could allow suspects to detect a raid in advance.