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New York Police Department Plays Loose with Freedom of Information Act Laws

The New York Police Department (“NYPD”) has a history of denying freedom of public information requests, especially when it concerns surveillance equipment and information gathering technology.

Muckrock, an online records request monitoring database, showed that of the 500 requests monitored since 2017 only half were completed.

Vox reporter Rebecca Heilweil submitted a request for public records to obtain a better idea of the artificial intelligence-based technology the NYPD was employing, specifically gun-detection software used to indicate when a brandished firearm appears in a video. Her request was twice rejected because it would “reveal non-routine techniques and procedures” as well as company trade secrets and “affect their competitive position and imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations.”

Heilweil stated that she was not the only person receiving “such an opaque and frustrating response.” Most are forced to sue to get a response, and the NYPD is more apt to make a legal issue of it than most. They routinely used “Glomar” replies to requests. A “Glomar” response is an FBI/CIA tactic that neither confirms nor denies the existence of the documents being requested, thereby stalling for more time.

Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Albert Fox Cahn said, “The problem is, we have a police department with a decades-long history of trying to do everything within its power to hide its operations from public scrutiny.”

Data received from surveillance cameras, license plate readers and radiological sensors are crunched through an algorithm to predict further potential crime. Liberals are concerned that these algorithms and databases were created under conditions that would continue earlier practices of racial profiling and police bias.

Many organizations push to legislate access to government documents or support acts like the Public Oversight Technology Act, which would force the NYPD to disclose more information about the technology they employ.

Heilweil said failure to process a public records request limits us in our knowledge of what the Department is doing. 



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