Privacy SOS

UPDATE: The NYPD apologizes for showing racist film to officers

Making the rounds on the internet today is a truly shocking article from the New York Times, describing how the NYPD showed an Islamophobic, error-riddled "training" video to about 1,500 police officers and then lied about it. Given what we know about the department's city-wide surveillance campaign directed at Muslims in NYC, and its work with the CIA towards that end, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the revelations. If you haven't already, you should read the NYT piece yourself, and take care to note a number of interesting details: 

  • The documents that NYPD eventually released about the video show that it was the Department of Homeland Security that first gave it to the police.
  • DHS told the NYTimes that it wasn't sure who at the agency gave the video to the NYPD, and that it could have been a private contractor.
  • The company that made the racist film, The Clarion Fund, received funding from Sheldon Adelson, a rich man who arguably reshaped the GOP primary this year by dumping millions of dollars into a super-PAC supportive of candidate Newt Gingrich.
  • The NYPD initially lied about how many officers had seen the film. Only later, when the Brennan Center for Justice in NYC took the NYPD to court in a public records suit, did the public learn that nearly 1,500 officers had viewed it.

The takeaway? DHS is out of control, and its reliance on private contractors translates into little to no accountability for actions like this. The racist film episode also underscores the notion that anti-Islam trainings in law enforcement are systemic, and not the work of a few bad apples. Since 2009, we have had ample evidence to support this conclusion; today's revelations show that the problem has not gotten better.

Finally, the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies have their relationship to the public entirely backwards. Those agencies work for us, not the other way around. The NYPD needs to realize that it can't hide its training mechanisms, operations and policies from us, the people it is supposed to protect and serve. It should not be allowed to operate above the law and behind a wall of secrecy.

Kudos to the Brennan Center for pursuing this case and exposing this racist practice to the light of day. In the absence of any Mayoral or serious city government oversight, government oversight and accountability work is left almost entirely to outside groups. That's shameful, and reflects poorly on the city Mayor Bloomberg boasts is the best in the world. Here's towards a better NYPD.

UPDATE: Mayor Bloomberg responded to this scandal with mealy-mouthed criticism. He said that people responsible for showing the video exhibited "terrible judgment," but also said that neither he nor Ray Kelly knew the film was shown. That's odd, because Kelly did an interview for the film and is featured in it. You'd think one of the 1,500 officers who saw the film might have mentioned it. Bloomberg said nothing about punishing Kelly for his involvement with the racist video. A police spokesman said the Sergeant responsible for showing the film to 1,500 police officers has been disciplined, though he did not say how.

A fairly low-level official will bear the responsibility for this scandal, which is likely unsurprising to police watchdog groups. After all, Bloomberg has sanctioned the police's massive anti-Muslim spying effort and the department's notoriously racist "stop and frisk" policy. Don't hold your breath for high level accountability in this incident. 

UPDATE II: It's wonderful to be wrong sometimes. We had titled this post "The NYPD has no apologies," because the department's first reaction to this scandalous revelation was to shirk responsibility and lie about how many officers had seen the film. But yesterday, in a letter to Muslim rights groups, police commissioner Ray Kelly wrote: "I offer my apologies to members of the Muslim community, in particular, who would find the film inflammatory and its airing on Department property, though unauthorized, to be inappropriate." Sort of a roundabout apology, but an apology nonetheless. Still, actions speak louder than words. If Mayor Bloomberg and Ray Kelly are really sorry, they should consider taking action to correct the damage that has been done. Ending the NYPD's work with the CIA towards spying on NYC Muslims would be a good start.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.