New York City

NYPD opposes more stringent reporting requirements in POST Act

One proposal to clarify the surveillance technology transparency law “would be extremely harmful to the functioning of the department,” one official said.

New York City Eric Adams introduces NYPD K5 at the Times Square subway station on September, 22, 2023

New York City Eric Adams introduces NYPD K5 at the Times Square subway station on September, 22, 2023 (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Top police brass defended their compliance with the city’s surveillance technology transparency law at a City Council hearing on Friday, and registered strong opposition to recommendations and new legislation that would add more stringent reporting requirements in the three-year-old law.

Police officials said at the hearing, which was held jointly with the Committees on Public Safety and Technology, that they are complying with the law. The POST Act, enacted in 2020, requires the department to disclose the surveillance technologies that it uses and to publish impact and use policies for those technologies. “The POST Act strikes a balance between a number of critical interests; transparency, public safety, innovation and administrability,” Michael Gerber, deputy commissioner of legal matters at the NYPD, said on Friday. “We disclose a wide range of information without compromising our ability to solve crimes and keep people safe.”

But the department has faced not only criticism from civil liberties advocates, but also scrutiny from the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD. A 2022 report by the Office of the Inspector General found that the department has largely complied with the requirement to issue impact and use policies, but took issue with the use of “general and generic” language used in the vast majority of those policies, and with the practice of grouping different kinds of technologies under the same use policy.

Rather than issuing policies for each new tool that the department acquires, the NYPD has issued policies for broader categories of technologies like “situational awareness cameras,” which include multiple kinds of tools that rely on that technology, but which are made by different companies and may have different capabilities. When the NYPD acquired two four-legged robot dogs known as “digidogs” earlier this year, the department didn’t issue a new impact and use policy for that specific tool, but added an addendum to their broader use policy for situational awareness cameras. The inspector general’s report noted that this approach can allow the department to shield exactly what kind of tools are in use.

Scrutiny of the department’s compliance with the POST Act comes as Mayor Eric Adams has eagerly embraced new police surveillance tools. Earlier this year, Adams celebrated the redeployment of a pair of four-legged robotic dogs to the force’s ranks, as well as a new 400-lb autonomous robot that patrols a Times Square subway station and a GPS tracker projectile launcher. Discussing the new tools in April, Adams called it just the “beginning of a series of rollouts.” An NYPD official estimated at the hearing on Friday that the department spends around $120 million per year on surveillance technologies covered under the POST Act.

The administration’s interest in harnessing surveillance technologies – along with concern from the inspector general that the department’s interpretation of the POST Act is inconsistent with the spirit of the law – has prompted the council to take up several bills that would add more stringent and specific reporting requirements. 

One bill sponsored by Council Member Amanda Farías would require the department to provide an itemized list of all surveillance technologies used by the NYPD, along with additional information about how data accessed by the tools is used. Another bill sponsored by Council Member Crystal Hudson would require the department to create and publish a policy governing its use of facial recognition tools and publish audits of its use of facial recognition technology.

A third bill sponsored by Council Member Julie Won would clarify language in the POST Act to require that the department issue impact and use policies for each individual surveillance technology that it uses, as well as include additional information, such as potential disparate impacts the technology could have on protected groups. 

NYPD officials said they strongly oppose the third bill as written, using some of the same arguments the department used years ago to oppose the enactment of the POST Act in the first place. Namely, that disclosing too much information about surveillance tools used by the NYPD would undermine the power of those tools, and that it would be a huge administrative burden, and therefore infeasible. Department officials said they’re unclear about the intent of the third bill and took particular issue with language in it that would require a new use policy to be issued for each technology acquired “regardless of whether such technology overlaps in functionality or capability” with existing technologies.

“Does this mean that every time the department intends to purchase a different make or model of camera, with even slightly altered functionality, a new IUP would have to be issued? If we replace officers’ smartphones, would a new IUP be required? Does this mean that the department would be required to do an IUP for a new covert undercover recording device?” Gerber asked. “If the answer to these questions is yes, the bill would be extremely harmful to the functioning of the department and could serve to compromise public safety.”

Testifying later on Friday afternoon, Department of Investigation Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber said that they are broadly supportive of each of those bills, noting that they reflect some of the 15 recommendations made in the inspector general’s 2022 report – 14 of which the NYPD rejected. But Strauber said that it’s not the DOI or inspector general’s view that there needs to be a separate impact and use policy for a technology with “substantial overlap” with the functionality of another technology. “It’s where you’re really talking about something distinct,” Strauber said, that they would want to see separate use policies. “I think this is a line-drawing exercise.”

Friday’s hearing came just days after the NYPD caught criticism over another transparency-related issue – the decision to move reporters working inside police headquarters from their offices inside the building (referred to as “the Shack”) and into a trailer outside the building. The NYPD has said the move is being made to create additional space for reporters, but media outlets and the New York Press Club have criticized the department for providing little notice of the move and jeopardizing reporters’ access to the building and police officials who work inside it.