NYPD Produces Propaganda Instead of Legally Required Public Records

NYPD was able to spin out a hype video in less than 24 hours, which is notable because New York City has been horrendously slow to producing public records they are obligated by law to provide to the taxpayers who fund them. 
NYPD Produces Propaganda Instead of Legally Required Public Records
Screengrab: NYPD

On Tuesday, dozens of New York Police Department officers raided Columbia University’s campus and arrested more than a hundred students camped out on its lawn and occupying one of its buildings. 

The next day, the NYPD released a dramatically edited hype video detailing its efforts and warning others not to protest. Immediately upon seeing the video, we filed a public records request asking for information about how the video was made, what editing notes are given, who asked for it to be made, how much it cost to make, and other information about the video. I am not optimistic that we will get it. If we do, I suspect that it will take many years.

The fact that the NYPD was able to spin out a propaganda video in less than 24 hours using body camera footage and what looks to be professional video taken by the police is notable, because the New York City government, including the NYPD, has been horrendously—and perhaps illegally—slow at producing public records they are obligated by law to provide to the taxpayers who fund them. 


This problem predates Eric Adams’ mayoral term, but has continued well into the Adams administration. Over the last few years, Joseph and I have filed many public records requests (called Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL requests in New York) with New York City agencies including the NYPD, and have received almost nothing back. The law states that documents must be provided within 20 business days, but that almost never happens in practice.

The reason we file public records requests, not just with the NYPD but so many more local, state, federal, and military agencies, is that the records produced can give insight into an agency’s thinking; why certain decisions were made; why certain actions were taken (or not taken). We regularly request emails, contracts, memos, bodycam footage, Powerpoint presentations, and much more. Often these documents result in an article, sometimes they don’t. Regardless, we think a healthy sign of a government, whether that’s concerning a tiny local police department or an intelligence agency, is citizens being able to request and receive information that is in the public interest, and which can lead people to be more informed. 


FOI delays are very common all over the country, but the turnaround time for these requests with the city of New York and the NYPD, though, has often been absurdly long. Take, for example, a request I filed on November 15, 2019 about possible communications between the Citizen “neighborhood watch” app and the New York City mayor’s office. The request was acknowledged by the city on November 18. I was then told by the city on November 26 that “you can expect a response on or about Friday, May 29, 2020.”

Here is what has happened since then: 

  • May 29, 2020: Delayed until November 27, 2020
  • November 30, 2020: Delayed until May 28, 2021
  • May 28, 2021: Delayed until November 29, 2021
  • November 29 2021: Delayed until December 15, 2021
  • December 28, 2021: Delayed until March 23, 2022
  • March 22, 2022: Delayed until June 16, 2022
  • May 27, 2022: The city tried to close my request altogether 
  • June 15, 2022: Delayed until August 1, 2022
  • July 14, 2022: City closed my request
  • July 19, 2022: I email the city, say “YES I am still interested, you have pushed the date back many times and have failed to meet any date you’ve promised or that you are statutorily obligated to meet. Please reopen.” 
  • July 22, 2022: Request reopened. Response delayed to September 16, 2022
  • September 19, 2022: Delayed until October 31, 2022
  • October 31, 2022: Delayed until December 30, 2022
  • December 28, 2022: Delayed until February 14, 2023
  • February 13, 2023: Delayed until March 29, 2023
  • March 29, 2023: Delayed until May 24, 2023
  • May 24, 2023: Delayed until July 10, 2023
  • July 10, 2023: Delayed until August 21, 2023
  • August 21, 2023: Delayed until October 3, 2023
  • October 6, 2023: Delayed until December 4, 2023
  • December 5, 2023: Delayed until February 1, 2024
  • February 2, 2024: Delayed until April 26, 2024
  • April 29, 2024: Delayed until July 24, 2024 

Perhaps you, like me, do not have a lot of confidence that I am ever going to get the documents I requested.

A similar request I filed directly with the NYPD was answered more quickly, but the police said they had no documents about Citizen whatsoever, which is hard to believe considering that the NYPD had issued a public statement about Citizen shortly before I filed the request. 

My experience asking for Citizen documents is not unique. On November 4, 2021, I asked for documents about Eric Adams’ plan to take part of his paycheck in Bitcoin. The Adams administration has pushed back its expected response date to provide those documents 17 times so far, and I have still not gotten anything. 

The New York Police Department has pushed back a request I filed about Eric Adams’ apparent practice of carrying around a photo of Officer Robert Venable, a police officer who was killed. The New York Times reported that “the weathered photo of Officer Venable had not actually spent decades in the mayor’s wallet. It had been created by employees in the mayor’s office in the days after Mr. Adams claimed to have been carrying it in his wallet. The employees were instructed to create a photo of Officer Venable, according to a person familiar with the request,” The New York Times reported. “A picture of the officer was found on Google; it was printed in black-and-white and made to look worn as if the mayor had been carrying it for some time, including by splashing some coffee on it, said the person.” The NYPD pushed back its expected date for fulfilling my request from November 24, 2023 to December 29, 2023, and has ignored follow ups from me since then. 

Joseph, meanwhile, is still waiting on a response to a request with the NYPD related to communications about the robot company Boston Dynamics, filed in 2021; one concerning Amazon Ring from 2019; and another about virtual reality simulator training from 2021. When Joseph has managed to get the NYPD to finally respond to a request, the agency has repeatedly declined to provide the requested records anyway. That includes a request about the NYPD and the Microsoft Advanced Patrol Platform (MAPP), which is a modified Ford Explorer fitted with extra technology for law enforcement purposes. The NYPD did produce documents for one of Joseph’s requests over the years: a series of letters from Grayshift, a company that makes tools for breaking into and extracting data from mobile phones. 

One of the ways journalists—and residents—are supposed to be able to hold their government accountable is by using Freedom of Information requests to see what is happening behind the scenes. At Columbia University and City University of New York (CUNY), we would like to see basic things like who contacted the NYPD and the Adams administration, what did they say, when did they say it, how was it responded to? This is not to say that NYPD and NYC never provide documents, but they are incredibly slow to do so, and often provide documents only months or years after a news event, by which time their relevance often has faded.

It is possible to file lawsuits to speed up this process, but this is not a feasible or affordable option for the vast majority of people who file FOI requests with the city of New York. To its credit, New York City has an Open Records portal where it is possible to see the huge number of FOI requests the city is dealing with, and how far behind it is on these requests. There are currently more than 23,800 open requests with the NYPD (meaning requests for which documents have not been provided). The city as a whole has more than 55,000 open requests. Many requests from as far back as 2018 are still open. 

The portal showing extremely overdue FOI requests.

We want to see what types of equipment was brought, how the police were talking about the protesters behind the scenes, where the idea that the infamous bike chain was “industrial” came from. We want to see who asked the police to make a hype video, what the “script” was, the raw body camera footage used to make it, the editing notes and feedback that the people making it got and were given, where the music came from and what other types of music were tried, how much it cost to make, and a lot more. Were the parts of the video where police say “this is not a tent city, this is our city, this is New York City” scripted? How about the part where an officer said the encampment “smells bad, it just reeks?” Did they do multiple takes? 

Right now, these mechanisms of transparency and accountability are not working in New York City.