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Abolishing Police Surveillance In NYC: Will Transparency Help Or Make It Harder?

This article was funded by the Marvel Cooke Fellowship. Read more about this reporting project and make a contribution to fund our fellowship budget.

TS Candii was living in a homeless shelter in the Bronx when she first encountered the New York City Police Department. Candii had stepped outside to smoke a cigarette when police officers approached her to become an informant. 

When she refused, they threatened to arrest her on sex work-related charges unless she performed oral sex on both officers. 

“I hate to say it like this but [afterward] I was excited that I could cross the street without being entrapped or arrested,” Candii said to New York City Council members, recalling how she felt after the rape. 

That was a decade ago, when Candii first moved to New York City as a Black transgender woman seeking to restart her life in a so-called liberal city. These days, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) uses cutting-edge technology to surveil homeless people. This includes a dystopian network of surveillance cameras and other data collection efforts to track individuals living on the streets and target them for social service outreach and policing.

This year, for the first time in history, the NYPD publicly disclosed its surveillance tools after the passage of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act. The law requires the NYPD to release reports on how these tools are used and allows the public 45 days to provide input that the department must consider when finalizing its policies.   

Proponents of the POST Act argue these laws are a first step to limiting police powers. For example, they believe such laws allow advocates to understand how the city targets homeless New Yorkers. The city claims the Street Homelessness Joint Command Center allows the NYPD to track individuals living on the streets and target them for social service outreach and policing in order to ‘end homelessness.’ 

Critics, meanwhile, question whether laws like the POST Act are simply another police reform that fails to limit police power and instead legitimizes violent surveillance practices against Black and brown communities. They argue that transparency does nothing to change these tactics, which houseless activists and outreach workers deem ineffective and cruel because police enforcement with homeless individuals often results in confiscation of their belongings, tickets, and/or arrests.

This debate has national relevance. Cities like Seattle, Denver, Oakland, and San Francisco have increased public oversight of police surveillance. While the POST Act is weaker than other oversight laws, it follows a growing trend across cities and, in this case, impacts the nation’s largest police force.

The POST Act passed after three years of advocacy led by a group of legal organizations including the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), which fights to end discriminatory surveillance in New York. 

For Albert Fox Cahn, the Executive Director of STOP, the law offers a basis for further litigation that could require the NYPD to divulge more information. 

“The POST act was an important first step because you can’t outlaw what you can’t see and, without transparency about what systems the NYPD is using, it’s impossible to outlaw those systems,” Cahn said. 

The Pitfalls of Transparency

The NYPD released 36 reports outlining its use of different surveillance tools. The reports use boilerplate language, including blatantly false claims such as denying the racist applications of spy tools despite widespread documentation. 

The reports revealed the use of tools that enable police to broadly identify the general vicinity of a WiFi-enabled device, investigate cryptocurrency transactions, and the extent to which officers use fake social media accounts to carry out investigations and arrests. 

“When you’re not from the community, it’s easy to see this minimalist action as a win,” said Mutale Nkonde, leader of AI For The People, an organization advancing racial justice in the technology field. 

Nkonde supported the POST Act in 2019 but changed her opinion after the 2020 uprisings demonstrated the need to ban police technology instead of asking for transparency.  “The police can come in and kill me in my own bed at any point,” she said, reflecting on how police killed Breonna Taylor. “Laws like the POST Act are not designed to address that.” 

At the same time, such reforms can cause harm by legitimizing the police as an institution. 

“You have this narrative that police keep us safe while police have been a threat to the public safety of Black, Latinx, and low-income communities this whole time,” said Keli Young, Civil Rights Campaign Coordinator at Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL), a grassroots membership organization in New York organizing to end mass incarceration. 

In the past, organizers and advocates sought transparency around police spy tools through lengthy lawsuits and tireless public records requests. 

“Legislating regulation or oversight are reforms that fail shrink the power of the police—they seek to fix the police use of these tools rather than completely abolishing it,” said Myaisha Hayes, director at MediaJustice which leads the fight for racial, gender, and economic equity in the digital age.  

The POST Act passed at the height of racial justice protests, during which the NYPD violently attacked protestors on camera. Local news outlets hailed it as an “effort to overhaul the police force” despite how weak it is compared to laws in other cities giving local governments more oversight of police.  

In contrast, New York City’s charter limits the city council’s ability to oversee police.  

“The POST Act is not a transformative law and none of us who worked on it are fooled by that,” said Rashida Richardson, a visiting scholar at Rutgers who helped draft the law. “But we’re also realistic about the political reality we live in: we didn’t have a city government willing to do this pre-uprisings.” 

In contrast, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which builds community power towards the abolition of the police state, argues the POST Act failed to meet the moment. 

“The slogans were ‘defund the police’ and ‘fuck the police’ not ‘reform the police,'” said Shakeer Rahman, an organizer with the coalition.

Young saw the consequences of this dissonance play out in New York City, remarking, “I don’t think anyone is surprised when politicians and lawmakers come out and say, ‘this is reform, you all got what you asked for’ but it actually makes us less safe.” 

“That was a year ago and in the past year we’ve seen police continue to kill Black and Latinx people at alarming rates.” 

Since then, only five officers will face penalties for attacking protestors during the 2020 uprising. The NYPD will determine those penalties, capturing the futility of police reforms. 

Efforts to defund the NYPD last year were thwarted by cosmetic changes to the city budget that did not result in any meaningful reduction of the department’s $11 billion war chest. This year, the city increased the NYPD budget by $200 million. 

This includes $47 million for expanding surveillance tools and ensuring more officers have tablets with access to what the NYPD describes as “one of the world’s largest networks of cameras, license plate readers, and radiological censors.” 

From Raising Awareness to Building Power 

TS Candii has continued to see other Black trans women bear the brunt of police enforcement and surveillance as they navigate the criminal legal system. 

Candii is now the founder of Black Trans Nation, a non-profit organization led by and for Black trans sex workers. The group played a central role in repealing the same statute that officers used to threaten Candii with arrest. 

The loitering for the purpose of prostitution statute was passed in 1976 at the behest of the NYPD and has been used to criminalize and surveil Black and Latinx trans women walking down the street in low-income neighborhoods.

“The community doesn’t even know what the POST Act entails,” Candii said, “how many lives has that law saved?” 

She compared the situation to the repeal of the loitering statute earlier this year, which led the city’s district attorneys to vacate thousands of convictions and clear arrest histories. People could now seek opportunities they were previously disqualified from due to their criminal record. 

These differences capture how high-level advocacy organizations such as STOP often measure success in terms of media attention or policy changes whereas some grassroots organizations measure impact by building people power to create material differences in the lives of community members.

While STOP was awarded a prestigious grant shortly after their legislative victory, Candii’s experience has been vastly different. Critics describe these trends as part of a long history of funders investing in liberal reforms instead of more radical demands thus altering the direction of social movements.

“White people pass a law, they get money,” she said. “Black trans women pass a law and we don’t even get nothing other than press. It’s ridiculous.”

Rebecca Chowdhury

Rebecca Chowdhury

Rebecca Chowdhury is a freelance journalist covering working-class communities of color with a focus on immigration and criminal justice issues. Her work has appeared in MIT Technology Review, The Appeal, In These Times, The Indypendent, and Human Rights Watch. She's also a language justice worker providing Bangla interpretation within movement spaces in New York City.