Rikers officers won’t wear body cameras all summer after 1 caught fire

Correction officers at Rikers Island will not wear body-worn cameras through at least September due to a technical problem with the devices, alarming watchdogs who say they’re a critical tool for monitoring potentially violent interactions with detainees.

The nearly 3,500 body-worn cameras were removed from correction officers’ uniforms in early May, after a captain at Rikers Island was burned by one that had caught fire.

At the time, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Correction said the cameras were expected to be returned in a week or two after a review. But a report on Thursday night from the federal appointee who monitors city jails found that all the cameras have been removed for “at least” another 10 weeks.

Spokespeople for the corrections department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Calling the use of body-worn cameras “invaluable” for determining what occurs inside the notoriously violent jails on Rikers Island, federal monitor Steve Martin urged correction officials in his report to bring the cameras back at least on a rolling basis. He said they’re needed “in the prevention, detection and response to the excessive use of force” by officers against detainees.

Video footage from Rikers Island has previously helped investigators document violent and illegal conduct by officers and detainees alike. It has also been the source of controversy, with the Adams administration temporarily blocking the city’s jails oversight body, the Board of Correction, from accessing body-worn camera and surveillance footage in the wake of news stories based on those images. That access was restored in October.

A 2022 Board of Correction investigation into deaths in city custody relied on an officer’s body camera to determine that officers failed to immediately render medical aid after a detainee, Elijah Muhammad, 31, was found unresponsive in his cell. He died shortly thereafter.

“The department cannot function effectively without body-worn cameras,” said Bobby Cohen, a Board of Correction member, in an interview. “If the ones that were in use are past their expiration date, the department should immediately obtain new ones or different kinds. There is too much violence in New York City jails and video is critical to decreasing it.”

Video accessed and documented by the board has been a key way that the public has learned about jail conditions, which have deteriorated to the point that federal prosecutors are seeking a complete federal takeover of the correction department. A judge is set to consider installing a receiver — an official who could overrule the mayor on jail operations — at a court hearing on July 9.

Cameras have also held correction officers accountable as the number of slashings and stabbings at Rikers have skyrocketed in recent years. The federal monitor last year reported that body-worn camera footage showed that a captain failed to report the use of a weapon, as required, after a detainee stabbed another in the head with a pen — an incident that led to the use of pepper spray.

Additionally last year, a correction officer was indicted after being caught on his body-worn camera placing a sharp object in a detainee’s cell and falsely reporting it as recovered contraband. The incident followed the officer’s use of force against the detainee.

Body-worn cameras began to be rolled out at Rikers in 2015, mandated by the legal settlement over officer use of force that led to the appointment of the federal monitor. The Department of Correction directive governing their use requires them to be turned on for myriad circumstances, including when escorting detainees, engaging in any use of force against a detainee, witnessing violence between detainees and during tours of housing areas.

But Martin, the monitor, has also alleged that Rikers staff often don’t follow the directives for turning the cameras on when required. And some don’t wear the cameras at all due to the correction department’s lack of enough backings that attach cameras to uniforms, he wrote in his report on Thursday.

After the May fire, the department removed the cameras and asked the manufacturer, Reveal Media, to evaluate them. That evaluation revealed hundreds of cameras had exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan and needed to be removed from service.

A message left with a representative for Reveal Media was not immediately returned. A review of purchase orders by the Department of Correction shows it has paid the company about $107,000 since 2017.

In 2018, the NYPD removed about 3,000 body-worn cameras, which were manufactured by a different company, from police officers after one of the cameras exploded.

Beyond body-worn cameras, Rikers Island has stationary surveillance cameras, and officers have access to handheld cameras.

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