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New Legislation Could Mean Oversight of NYPD Spy Tools

As attempts to reform police departments sweep the nation, a newly proposed bill in New York City would create new oversight mechanisms and give the public insight into the use of surveillance technologies.

by Lucas Ropek / June 17, 2020
Shutterstock/TierneyMJ

As protests related to police brutality sweep the nation, activists and progressive politicians have seized upon the momentum to push for organizational reforms in police departments — many of those reforms are aimed at surveillance technologies. 

Poised to join that trend is New York City, which is expected to pass a proposal that would create new mechanisms for public oversight of police spy tools.

The NYPD is one of the largest and most well-funded police departments in the country, having a $6 billion annual budget at its disposal, as well as a wide variety of surveillance technologies that are largely unknown to the public

The POST Act would change that, forcing police to inventory and publicize all of the surveillance devices that they use. It would also force the department to create a "surveillance impact and use" policy, or privacy policy, that creates guidelines for data collection and protection. Under the new law, the Office of the NYPD Inspector General will conduct an annual audit of the department to make sure it is complying with that policy.

The law is being sponsored by City Councilor Vanessa L. Gibson and was written with the help of S.T.O.P. (Surveillance Technology Oversight Project), a local activist organization launched in 2019 dedicated to increasing transparency around police technology.

A council vote on the legislation is scheduled to take place Thursday, June 18. The bill "has the support of the council" and Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign it into law, according to a press release provided by Gibson's office. De Blasio has also said he plans to cut the NYPD's budget and divert the money to city services, though it's so far unclear how much funding that will be.

“Residents are demanding more from law enforcement and their elected officials to protect the civil rights of all New Yorkers, specifically black and brown communities and I believe this bill is a step in the right direction towards ensuring accountability,” said Gibson in a statement.

Albert Fox Cahn, S.T.O.P. founder, agreed that the law would help further protect the rights of the city's minorities and vulnerable populations. 

"The POST Act is a crucial check on NYPD surveillance on New Yorkers of color and Muslim communities. For far too long, the NYPD has used federal and private grants to spy on us," said Cahn, in a statement. 

In an interview, Cahn said that there are model cities, like Oakland and Seattle, that New York can look to as it reforms its police department and increases transparency and oversight. 

"What we went for was a bill that would require the NYPD to finally disclose every single spy tool that they use," he said. "This would really be crucial...[the NYPD] operates the largest surveillance network in the country, and it does much of this outside of civilian oversight using federal funds and private donations to their charitable organization, which takes millions of dollars from private individuals to fund NYPD activities, without any oversight from elected officials." 

New York is also scheduled to vote on a number of other police reform laws, including one that would make it a crime for cops to use chokeholds, as well as one that would create an officer database that tracks disciplinary problems within the NYPD's ranks

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