A Hidden Side of Police Abuse

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S1: At NYPD headquarters just across from city hall, there’s a place called the Real Time Crime Center.

S2: It’s a big room that has a giant monitor at the front of it that has pictures of tattoo’s footage from surveillance cameras of other police databases.

S1: This is unhealed DFS. He’s a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.

S2: Then all around it are a series of desks where individual officers that are part of the real time crime center are crunching searches and other information to try and investigate crimes.

S1: It looks like the Hollywood version of a high tech police department, the place where a plucky investigator says enhance the perps face snaps into view. There’s a two story screen at the front of a dark room. Rows and rows of detectives sit in the darkness and they see real time because they’re talking about. This is not like looking into cold cases. They’re saying that, like, this is the nerve center for what is actually happening on the streets of New York.

S2: That’s right. It’s connected to thousands and thousands of public and private CCTV cameras.

S3: It’s connected to hundreds of different license plate readers. It has access to all the information that’s being uploaded related to people’s social media monitoring practices, to the repository of mug shots and juvenile photos that inform how the NYPD does its facial recognition searches.

S4: So this is kind of like the NYPD headquarters for surveillance technologies. That’s right. This place has been around since 2005. It’s grown and changed in that time, along with the scope of police surveillance in New York. License plate readers, CCTV cameras, nine one one calls it all funnels into this room. Forget dusting for fingerprints. This is where police investigations happen now in this suite of high end technologies powering the real time crime center.

S1: Some of them are proprietary. And many of them are secret. New Yorkers, in other words, no longer know how the NYPD determines who a suspect in a crime that’s about to change, thanks to something called the Post Act, public oversight of surveillance technology. It’s a bill that passed the New York City Council last week. And it means that for the first time, the NYPD will have to tell the public what kind of technology it uses to do its job.

S5: The postdoc is meant to be first step because we can’t fight well, we can’t see it empowers the public, it empowers city council and empowers advocates to say these are the tools. And here’s how they work. It turns out that they’re either broken, they are biased. They are only used in particular parts of New York City. And it gives legislators a stronger record to actually push for whether that’s a moratorium or outright ban. There’s a better record to make that claim.

S6: No, we have a full sense of what’s being done after seeing police lie about their tactics over and over again in the last few weeks, only to be immediately contradicted on video. Politicians are no longer willing to give them the benefit of the doubt today on the show. Police reform isn’t just about behavior. It’s about the tactic. It’s used to put people behind bars. Advocates in New York have a simple request for the NYPD. They want to know what tools the department uses to solve crimes. I’m Henry Goodbar in for Lizzie O’Leary. And this is what next TBD. Stick around.

S1: In response to weeks of protests across the country, police departments are starting to change. In New York, for example, disciplinary records for the NYPD are finally going to be made public. And last week, New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea made an announcement about the NYPD anticrime units. Undercover cops who tend to be involved in police shootings.

S7: Effective immediately, we will be transitioning those units, roughly 600 people citywide into a variety of assignments, including detective bureau, neighborhood policing and other assignments.

S2: When he made that announcement, he actually said that it was part of an outdated model of policing in that they generally are much more focused on intelligence.

S7: This is 21st century policing, intelligence data, ShotSpotter video.

S3: Make no mistake, this is a seismic shift in the culture of how the NYPD polices this great city. It gives you a sense of how a lot of the focus is on sort of individual officers on the street. But increasingly, the NYPD focus is on surveillance and it has been for a long time for unhelped story starts almost two decades ago.

S8: In the years just after the 9/11 attacks.

S2: 9/11, because it happened in New York, has had a very long shadow and fundamentally changed how many communities view the police department. 9/11 not only looked to automate information sharing between different federal agencies. It also tried to turn local police departments into sort of the eyes and ears of intelligence on the ground in major cities. So it became a really important time for police departments to start to view themselves as counterterrorism agencies. And that perspective has held true to this day.

S1: So on how after 9/11, when this technology really expanded. Was there a sense of pushback? Was there a sense that this was controversial, that there were these growing NYPD dragnets of both cameras and investigations and wiretaps that that seemed to be targeting regular New Yorkers who might not have been guilty of anything at all?

S2: So there’s always been pushback from impacted communities and from civil liberties advocates.

S5: But it goes to show the effectiveness of the police department and the influence of the police department, where a lot of the concerns were allayed by saying this is going to empower us to catch terrorists. And that terrorism label really calmed a lot of fears for many because they thought, well, they these are tools that are only going to be used against the most dangerous people. But in reality, it was never limited to counterterrorism in the first place. It was just presented as a counter terrorism tool.

S1: The most notorious example of NYPD surveillance was the illegal spying on Muslim New Yorkers after 9/11. The NYPD sent informers to take photos inside mosques. They infiltrated Muslim student groups at local colleges. Their cover cops trawled bookstores, restaurants and hookah bars, even played cricket. The group was called the Demographics Unit, but until the Associated Press revealed its work, the NYPD denied it existed.

S9: Now the demographics unit is gone, but the police department’s post 9/11 surveillance infrastructure remains everything to police. Snow gets shoveled into a giant database called the Domain Awareness System. That includes audio from gunshot detectors. Two billion photos of license plates. A hundred million summonses. Eleven million arrests. Two million warrants. And 30 days of video from nine thousand cameras. How will that information gets crunched? We don’t really know. And some of the things we do know suggest the NYPD could use more oversight, and that’s where the post act comes in.

S2: To give you an example of the types of things that they have done, they use facial recognition systems to try to identify people that are suspected of crimes that were captured on, let’s say, a CCTV camera. So there is an example of someone who went into a CBS and stole a six pack of beer. And the NYPD tried to run a picture of that suspect through its facial recognition system, but it didn’t return any results. So the NYPD thought, well, you know, that person looks a little bit like Woody Harrelson. So why don’t we grab a photo of Woody Harrelson? Run that through the facial recognition system and see if we can find a match that.

S1: Oh, my God. How did this become public? This seems like something the NYPD would never want to admit.

S2: So one of the things that The Post actor is trying to do is to change the way that we ordinarily find out about surveillance abuses, which is costly public records requests or through leaks to journalists. In this case, that that information came from an internal training guide that was obtained by Credit Garvey at Georgetown that was turned over through a public records request.

S1: To what extent do we find out about these kind of technologies when some kid ends up in court and they say, well, we know it was you because we have a witness identifying a dragon tattoo. We searched our database for a dragon tattoo. And it turns out that we knew you had one because you were stopped and frisked five years ago in East Harlem.

S2: Tell me, who was that? That linear. And that would be great, essentially. Doesn’t work that way. Most often we don’t get a sense of what tools are used at all. Sometimes the NYPD will enter into contracts with vendors that require them to be secretive and they’ll sign a nondisclosure agreement or a confidentiality clause that prevents them from disclosing the use of particular surveillance tools to the point where there are instances that police departments have dropped charges against a particular person because they don’t want to have to explain how they found them using the technology that is still secret.

S1: Oh, wow. So what would be the motivation for vendors to keep all this stuff secret? I mean, it just seems like, you know, pretty basic police work. You should have to show your work.

S2: There’s a couple of reasons. I think vendors will oftentimes say, look, this is my proprietary IP and if I have to disclose how these tools work, it was endanger my trade secrets and lose the value that we bring to the market at the same time that you actually scrutinize these tools and see what how they actually work in practice. They don’t do half of the things that they promised they’ll do, for example, in January.

S1: A Michigan man named Robert Williams was arrested for robbing the Shinola store in Detroit based on a faulty facial recognition algorithm. He spent 30 hours in jail, including a night sleeping on the floor of a dirty, crowded cell. He missed work for the first time in four years in The Washington Post on Wednesday. Williams wrote, I keep thinking about how lucky I was to have spent only one night in jail. And the photo that led to his arrest. It looks nothing like him. Williams wasn’t anywhere near the Shinola store that day. Stories like these are right on hell. And many others would like to establish a baseline of disclosure from the police. They’ve been trying to do this in New York since twenty seventeen when the NYPD deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism said their bill was, quote, insane and, quote, an effective blueprint for those seeking to do us harm.

S2: One of the popular misconceptions that the NYPD likes to put out when it opposes the postdoc is to say that this is going to create a blueprint for the bad guys and teach criminals and terrorists how to evade detection. The reality is that almost no surveillance technology stay secret forever. And we have a pretty good sense of what is there, what we don’t have a good sense of our new tools that are being developed. What policies are in place to protect New Yorkers constitutional rights?

S1: So with the Post Act, are we asking the NYPD for the contents of surveillance itself or just for knowledge of the types of systems that are in place?

S2: Essentially, it only requires that you’ve lists the types of tools that are being used. It doesn’t require the NYPD to disclose operational details of where they place these tools, what kinds of investigations they use it for. It is simply a listing of these are the tools we have and here’s the policies that we have in place.

S5: All of these tools are layered on one another. And when you think about what it means to have your social media presence being monitored, your subway ride being monitored, your face being subject to face emission scans, all of these systems create a world that’s increasingly covered by surveillance and something that becomes over time pretty incompatible with a democratic society.

S1: I’m wondering how specific this conversation is to New York City, we know that other cities have explored banning the use of facial recognition technology. Some have done so. How different is New York? And does the fact that New York serves as a model affect how you think about this bill and the effect that it will have in terms of influencing the practices of police departments around the country?

S5: It is certainly the largest police department and it is a format that has a lot of political capital. And when this bill was first proposed, their opposition influenced the mayor and the bill went nowhere. It has a significant propaganda machine. They have a lot of political sway. The ability to pass the post act goes to show that if the largest police department in the country has to make these basic disclosures, the same should be at a minimum required of every other police department.

S6: Unhealth, thank you so much for taking a minute to chat with us. Really appreciate it. Thanks so much for having me. This was fun. On how Diaz is a counsel in the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. And that’s it for our show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and is part of the larger What Next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. Mary will be back in your feed on Monday. And starting next Friday, I’ll be hosting a six part series about the future of the American city after Kovik, 19. We’re going to talk about cupcake shops, office elevators, municipal finance, jazz and the lure of the suburbs. Have a great weekend and see you next week.