Statement in Support of NYU Law Students Demanding Accountability from the NYU Policing Project
This is a statement in support of students at the NYU School of Law who are demanding accountability from the Policing Project, a nonprofit based on their campus that is funded by the policing technology industry to “work on ethical regulation of policing technology.” We are a community group based in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, where we organize against the repression, terror, and racial control of policing.
We are aware of a response that Professor Barry Friedman circulated privately regarding the students’ demands. We are writing to contextualize inaccuracies in that response, based on our firsthand experience with what Friedman misconstrues and on our community’s stakes in the harm. We begin first by sharing Friedman’s response for public scrutiny. We chose to do this because this is how and where we work: not in private emails belittling students and community groups but in the open, in the public, and in the streets — the very same places where Policing Project’s benefactors and beneficiaries stalk and harass us, oftentimes expressly invoking NYU’s prestigious blessing as justification for their violence.
On that same note, Friedman’s response begins by observing that the student letter “echoes claims that have been leveled against us by a couple of groups on Twitter.” As far as we know, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition is the only group that criticized the Policing Project’s work in public prior to the student letter. So this reference is likely a characterization of our work. While it’s true that we have criticized Policing Project on Twitter, years before that we made the same criticism to Barry Friedman’s face, when LAPD hired him to write and legitimate their body camera policies. And just this past year we spelled out the same concerns in more detail in publications with AI Now, another nonprofit based at NYU School of Law, and with the Law and Political Economy Project, which is based at Yale Law School.
Given the places where we’ve raised concern about Policing Project’s work, it’s worth asking why Barry Friedman would reduce us to “groups on Twitter.” It may have something to do with who we are: a community group led by people of color working to end policing’s racial terror. There is a long history in this country of white people using their institutional power to trivialize and erase community critiques of policing. These dynamics are part of how lawyers, law professors, and judges have worked to expand the police state’s power over time.
Friedman’s response also misconstrues the substance of the student criticism. For example, he writes that the student letter “suggests we worked in Los Angeles at the behest of the LAPD to legitimate body cameras and the body camera policy, and did this in part to further Axon’s interests, leading to L.A. purchasing millions of dollars of Axon cameras.” The students were highly specific on this point, so we begin by quoting what they wrote:
Policing Project and Professor Friedman have personally helped police departments adopt policies that have enriched Axon and expanded the market for Axon’s products. For example, after LAPD flew Policing Project and Professor Friedman into Los Angeles to help write and announce the LAPD’s body camera policies, the LAPD has spent over $36 million on Axon’s body cameras and associated storage and analysis costs.
Friedman says this narrative “cannot be true” because Axon first won LAPD’s business “several months” prior to LAPD hiring him in 2017, not after. But as much as both Friedman and Axon might need for Axon’s business with LAPD to be permanent, it is not. Indeed no surveillance is. But this narrative of inevitability is what Policing Project works to build on behalf of its funders.
Policing Project’s industry-funded work caused real damage in Los Angeles. The reality is that Angelenos were in 2017 organizing to altogether end LAPD’s then-new body camera program, which just the year before “stalled amid controversy at City Hall over the program’s price tag and whether the Police Department got the best deal possible” from Taser International (later renamed Axon, after the brand became too toxic for the company’s next phase of resourcing police with “reform” technology). It was in this context that we warned that LAPD flying in a NYU professor for press conferences trumpeting their “community survey” on a very narrow slice of the body camera program was intended to bury the more critical question of why this technology, used primarily for surveillance and propaganda and at the time “under scrutiny at City Hall over its costs,” needed to be in our lives at all.
We voiced our concerns about the stakes of Policing Project’s work in Los Angeles directly to Friedman in 2017, at first in personal conversations with him and later at the “community meetings” that Policing Project hosted. Our coalition partners predominated attendance at those meetings, where armed LAPD officers eyed the crowd. And in the years since 2017, as body cameras became a ubiquitous fixture of how our city is policed — something that was not true in 2017 — we have continued voicing this analysis. Not only did Friedman know these political stakes, so did two LAPD officials who arranged for Policing Project’s work in Los Angeles and today sit on Policing Project’s advisory board: Matt Johnson (then-president of LAPD’s governing board) and Arif Alikhan (who oversaw LAPD’s liability for constitutional violations).
Policing Project’s ultimate recommendation to LAPD acknowledged that “Stop LAPD Spying and some of its coalition partners . . . generally opposed the use of body cameras at all” and “felt that in adopting its body camera policy, [LAPD] had not adequately assessed or taken account of public concern.” But Policing Project quickly dismissed those objections, asserting that it was “impossible to assess the number of individuals who hold these views.” Of course, that is literally true about the views of any organization, local or national. It certainly is true of the Policing Project’s industry-funded advocacy efforts. But more importantly, in light of all that history, you might wonder why Friedman acts ignorant of the substance of community objections and political context now, writing that students have misunderstood the “actual chronology of events.” The answer is that this is the kind of elite political cover for police surveillance that Policing Project works with Axon to secure.
In addition to those concerns about the political stakes of Policing Project’s work for LAPD, we also warned about the substance of the policy that Policing Project wrote. We knew in 2017 that this policy vests too much discretion in police to determine when their misconduct or violence is “critical” enough to release footage to the public. Experience proved us right. LAPD is today the subject of both litigation and criticism for its refusal to release BWV footage that would expose unlawful policing of protests, false arrests, sexual harassment, racial denigration, perjury, and other grave misconduct. For all those videos, LAPD can point to the NYU Policing Project’s official blessing of their “transparency” to justify their secrecy. As we warned in 2015, body cameras have primarily become a tool for mass surveillance and propaganda. Policies like what Policing Project wrote for LAPD are a big reason why.
Policing Project’s work is inseparable from Axon’s growth efforts. Indeed just last week LAPD issued a demand to pay Axon over $6.9 million to purchase 3,000 of their “Fleet 3” car-mounted cameras, all outfitted with automated license-plate readers (ALPR). When Axon first proposed to sell ALPR technology, Policing Project announced that this could be “a product that leads the industry toward ethical usage.” The next year, the Axon AI Ethics Board (which Barry Friedman chairs and Policing Project staffs with former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who instituted LAPD’s notoriously racist “predictive policing” programs) announced that the Fleet 3 system meets “nearly all of the Board’s ethical recommendations.” Policing Project’s Axon-funded “ethical recommendations” no doubt differ from the views of those who are hunted using this technology. But the “ethical” validation helps police justify the price tag.
A closer look at the AI Ethics Board’s blessing of Fleet 3 system illustrates how Policing Project’s “ethical recommendations” help Axon secure its market. Again, the board declared in 2020 that the Fleet 3 system meets “nearly all of the Board’s ethical recommendations.” It turns out “nearly” holds a lot there. Deep in the report accompanying that announcement, the board admits that it “recommended that Axon only sell ALPRs in jurisdictions in which the use of ALPRs has been democratically authorized” but Axon ruled this “was not commercially feasible.” In fact, Axon’s profit line negated the board’s recommendations even more fundamentally: the report notes that, “due to market pressures, Axon was hesitant about requiring agency policies to comply with the Board’s recommendations.” In other words, Axon happily sells its weapons to users who will defy the “ethical recommendations” the company claims to “meet.” Axon’s embrace of these recommendations is ultimately little more than marketing intended to help the company claim “ethical leadership,” yet another way that Policing Project helps generate both market demand and political cover for its paymasters.
Friedman’s response to the student demands is even more misleading when it comes to ShotSpotter, a Policing Project funder that sells gunshot-detection microphones responsible for police killings of numerous people, including 13-year-old Adam Toledo in 2021. In the years that ShotSpotter has funded Policing Project, the company also vied to become a centralized platform for data-driven policing, supplementing its microphones with predictive analytics, forensic services, and the newest reform tactic: “patrol management.” This is what Axon, ShotSpotter, Palantir, Motorola, Cisco, Geolitica, Accenture, Microsoft, Amazon, Mark 43, and others are today all competing to do: lock themselves in as the centralized data platform for police agencies, linking cameras to microphones to predictive algorithms and beyond. And market dominance is what association with NYU’s prestige can help these companies secure.
It was in that context that Policing Project was hired to address an extremely small aspect of ShotSpotter’s harms: how much ambient audio the microphones hear. While this is hardly the central concern about ShotSpotter’s technology, sure enough the company quickly issued a press release announcing “NYU POLICING PROJECT PRIVACY AUDIT DETERMINES SHOTSPOTTER PRESENTS EXTREMELY LOW RISK OF VOICE SURVEILLANCE” and began trumpeting the research in shareholder disclosures. Again, the predominant critiques of ShotSpotter have always been its role in police violence, frequent inaccuracy, and extreme costs, not inadvertent audio surveillance. This is another way the policing industry normalizes grave harm, by distracting from fundamental critiques with “deep” analysis of tertiary issues.
Much worse, Friedman altogether ignores a second pro-ShotSpotter “research” paper by Policing Project that the students described. This March 2021 paper was a “cost-benefit analysis” of ShotSpotter acknowledging that the “technology can be quite expensive” but asserting its value and claiming the “social costs appear minimal.” The timing of this paper was strategic, announced the month before the Journal of Urban Health published a peer-reviewed 7-year study of 68 cities debunking claims about ShotSpotter’s benefits. ShotSpotter quickly went on the offensive, using Policing Project’s “research” to attack public critics and even citing it in a $300 million defamation lawsuit filed against journalists who had reported that the company fabricates AI evidence on behalf of police. This lawsuit, an affront to freedom of the press, specifically cites Policing Project as “a non-profit entity at New York University School of Law” and points to the “evidence” Policing Project generated. Again, this is the kind of cover that ShotSpotter pays Policing Project for. Either Friedman is oblivious about how his funders weaponize his work, or he wants the rest of us to be.
Friedman notes that some of the policing industry funds his work through its “philanthropic arms,” which he says have “nothing to do with policing technology at all.” And Policing Project’s website observes that all its funding “is given without any promises or expectations.” For most of us, it is obvious what these companies expect from their support for Policing Project. And it is no doubt obvious to the companies too. Of all the charity that companies like ShotSpotter, Mark43, Amazon, or Microsoft might choose, does Friedman really believe his funders invest in Policing Project solely out of philanthropic benevolence? Even within the broad range of advocacy and research conducted at NYU, why is it that ShotSpotters funds Policing Project’s work over literally any other available cause?
The answer is spelled out in how Policing Project’s website characterized this funding until this language was removed earlier this year, after we began quoting it in our public writing:
These companies fund “Policing Project’s work on ethical regulation of policing technology” (seriously, “ethical”) because they know it benefits them to influence that regulation. They know that investing in Policing Project helps preserve and grow their industry — especially as abolitionist movement-building against policing expands — as well as helping them compete within that market. Again, either Barry Friedman is foolish enough to think these companies expect nothing in return, or he thinks the rest of us are that foolish.
We are grateful to the NYU students who were willing to risk retaliation and other dangers to spell out Policing Project’s harm. After that letter was published, we have heard examples of Barry Friedman previously working to punish student critics by reporting them to fellow professors and prospective employers. We have also heard from junior scholars, untenured faculty, and other vulnerable university affiliates afraid to support public critiques of such an influential academic gatekeeper. This silence is understandable given the exploitation, hierarchy, and precarity that characterizes academic knowledge-production today. But it is also unacceptable.
We hope our community support for the student demands encourages others to join their calls for accountability. We call on scholars, educators, students, and legal practitioners who wish to end academic complicity in police terror to join the students’ statement as well as to boycott Policing Project’s events, convenings, and publications in order to help press the student demands. As for the companies whose deadly profits fund the Policing Project’s work, know that we are coming for you too.