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The Cops

Mayor Adams Surprised to Learn the NYPD Withheld Body Camera Footage Showing the Police Killing of Kawaski Trawick

“This is the first time I’m learning that,” the mayor told Hell Gate.

Adams looking sidelong at a table in City Hall in front of the New York State Flag

Mayor Eric Adams at a press conference. (Hell Gate)

NYPD officers shot and killed Kawaski Trawick in his home in 2019. The NYPD withheld critical video evidence, which now means the officers who killed Trawick may not face any discipline. Apparently, this is news to Mayor Eric Adams.

"This is the first time that I'm learning that there was a delay in turning over video," Adams told Hell Gate at a press conference on Tuesday. "If someone intentionally withheld that video, they're going to be held accountable."

To use his own parlance, if the mayor didn't know that the video in a high-profile police shooting was withheld for a year and a half, delaying the case beyond the statute of limitations, and leading the NYPD's deputy commissioner for trials to recommend that the officers who Tased and shot Trawick to death should face no discipline, he must have been living under a rock

The CITY wrote about it, having gotten its hands on the deputy commissioner's recommendation, in which she ruled the disciplinary allegation against the officer who killed Trawick "is moot because the charges were not served by the statutory deadline." Hell Gate wrote about it too. ProPublica published a lengthy and enraging accounting of how thoroughly the NYPD stymied any semblance of investigation into Trawick's death. Trawick's family, city councilmembers, and state legislators held a rally about it outside NYPD headquarters last week, a stone's throw from City Hall.

But we'll take Adams at his word, that he didn't know about a key aspect of the most high-profile test of police accountability of his administration. Given that body cameras were introduced to the NYPD as a mechanism of accountability, why is the department in a position to decide when and whether to turn over body cam footage in the first place? At the press conference, we asked the mayor: Why not just give the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is tasked with investigating and prosecuting police misconduct, independent access to the footage?

"Whatever methods that are in place now—because there's a lot of restrictions on those videos on privacy issues," Adams replied. "If you're talking to a victim of a sex crime, you don't want the CCRB to look at that. If you're talking to—if police officers are doing something that shouldn't be part of the process. So let me be very careful because there's always privacy concerns and what happened on those videos."

Hell Gate followed up with City Hall to try to clarify what the mayor meant by this response, but did not receive a reply. Parsing his answer as best as we're able to, it sounds like a defense of leaving the NYPD with a monopoly on video footage. But as a 2021 Department of Investigation report noted, that is not how many oversight bodies in other cities work. The DOI recommended that the CCRB be provided with independent access to body-worn camera footage. That hasn't happened, though the City Council is currently considering a bill on that issue. A 2020 CCRB report made the stakes plain: Out of more than 4,000 requests for footage the watchdog agency wanted to use to investigate allegations of officer misconduct, the NYPD only turned over video in roughly half of the cases. Moreover, "delays in obtaining footage," the report noted, "have led to a corresponding increase in case times and docket sizes." 

In 2019, the CCRB and the NYPD entered into a memorandum of understanding under which the NYPD's in-house lawyers committed to responding to CCRB requests for camera footage within 25 days. Response times have improved—at least in cases where the NYPD agrees to turn over video, which it often does not—but the agreement remains, in the words of the DOI report, "an imperfect solution." Fred Davie, the chair of the CCRB at the time, told ProPublica in 2020 that "direct access is a necessary tool for the CCRB to fairly and impartially investigate these matters as efficiently as possible." Three years later, the CCRB is still pursuing that goal.

Adams's concerns about giving CCRB investigators, who handle sensitive and confidential information all the time, independent access to body-worn camera footage aren't just out of step with how other cities handle police accountability—they're also inconsistent with the way other New York City watchdog agencies work. The Board of Correction, which oversees conditions in the City's jails, has historically had unfettered access to body-worn and other surveillance camera footage from the Department of Correction. When the Adams administration revoked that access earlier this year, the BOC sued, and the Adams administration relented, reinstating the access.

Adams told Hell Gate he wants NYPD trials to move faster. "I want this to be a hallmark of this administration, that we need to shorten the time," he said. "And I don't want evidence being withheld. The goal is to allow the truth to be told. You know, when we make mistakes in the police department, we have to live up to them. We have to own them. We don't need to be covering them up. And I want to make sure we start creating a culture of turnover evidence, making sure we shorten the time that it takes."

What that aspiration will be worth to the family of Kawaski Trawick, who are waiting for Adams's police commissioner to make a final ruling on whether the cops who killed their son should skate without any departmental discipline, remains to be seen.

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