Did the NYPD Try to Scrub References to Police Brutality From Its Wikipedia Page?

Illustration for article titled Did the NYPD Try to Scrub References to Police Brutality From Its Wikipedia Page?
Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Getty Images)

While we legally cannot, with 100% certainty, claim “New York’s finest” tried to lazily edit their own entry on Wikipedia to be infinitely more flattering—signs point strongly toward them doing precisely that!

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The substantial change was caught Wednesday morning by @NYPDedits, a Twitter bot that automatically posts when anonymous changes are made on Wikipedia by devices likely in use by the NYPD—specifically, those with IP addresses registered in the range for 1 Police Plaza, the force’s headquarters. Much like @CongressEdits (since banned from Twitter and rebooted on Mastodon), the bot runs on open-source code written by Ed Summers.

“I knew about this code and was inspired to set it up to watch the NYPD address range after an article from Kelly Weill originally found a bunch of edits from the NYPD address range,” John Emerson, the design and technology consultant who created @NYPDedits, told Gizmodo. Weill, now a reporter at the Daily Beast, had discovered changes made to the pages of victims of police brutality, like Amadou Diallo and Eric Garner, by devices likely within 1 Police Plaza back in 2015.

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“After I set up the bot, NYPD edits just stopped for a couple of years,” Emerson wrote in a Twitter DM. And sure enough, there’s a huge gap from April 2015 to January of last year, when the NYPD seemingly laid low (or at least made edits on Wikipedia from other IP ranges.) Why they began again is a mystery, though with a year and a half of erratic edits to compare it to, today’s bit of information vandalism stands out. As Emerson wrote, “it’s been a while since they’ve made an edit this bold.”

So what was the change? A device with IP address 206.212.133.17 rewrote the entire second paragraph of the Wikipedia page for the New York City Police Department. Previously this unflattering section read as follows:

The NYPD has an extensive history of police brutality, misconduct, and corruption, as well as discrimination on the basis of race, religion and sexuality.[9][10][11][12][13][14] Critics, including from within the NYPD, have accused the NYPD of rampantly manipulating crime statistics (“juking the stats”).[15][16] The NYPD has a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers; in one such prominent instance, in 2009, NYPD officer Adrian Schoolcraft was abducted by his fellow officers and involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital after he provided evidence of manipulation of crime statistics (intentional underreporting of crimes) and intentional wrongful arrests (to meet arrest quotas).[17][18] The NYPD has strongly resisted attempts at criminal justice reform.[16] The 2020 George Floyd protests created significant pressure to reform the NYPD and its practices. The June 2020 Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act reformed certain aspects of the NYPD.[19]

Not ideal padding on a professional resumé, but all of those things are inarguably true, and the heavily-militarized, 36,000-officer-strong NYPD has worked hard to earn a reputation that Wikipedia frankly underplays.

Here’s that same paragraph filtered through the perspective of law enforcement’s unearned culture of victimhood, as expressed publicly for all to see this morning (emphasis ours):

The NYPD has an extensive history of reducing crime in the most diverse city in the country. The Operation impact program, which placed new police officers in high crime areas to combat the growing street violence using the broken windows theory was reformed in January of 2014[9]. The NCO (Neighborhood Community Officer) program was then created to bridge the gap between the community and the NYPD, a comprehensive crime-fighting strategy built on improved communication and collaboration between local police officers and community residents. Neighborhood Policing greatly increases connectivity and engagement with the community without diminishing, and, in fact, improving the NYPD’s crime-fighting capabilities [10]. These new age methods in combination with uniformed patrol and plain clothes units who were responsible for 95% of the illegal firearm and recovery and arrest of individuals subsequently reduced the city’s crime rate[11][12]. All the efforts taken by officers during this time were thwarted during protests amid the police involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis[13]. The NYPD anti-crime unit was disbanded in July of 2020 amid protests[14][15]. Although the community calls for the defunding and abolishment of the NYPD [16] the members continue to protect the city. City council members have blamed the increase in shootings and homicides on the Mayors decision to cut funding, which they backed up [17][18].

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While not as drastic or extensive as the alterations Weill found years ago, the intent to erase wrongdoing on the part of cops is identical. More disturbing though is a staunch unwillingness for the NYPD to change its behavior or be in any way curtailed, paired with a bizarre sense of martyrdom. “We’re going to protect you whether you like it or not,” is a worrying tact to take for an armed group fighting for the right to choke people during arrests.

The change was almost immediately reverted by Wikipedia editors. Ironically, amid the NYPD’s continued conflation of peaceful protest with “looters” and “rioters,” it’s cops themselves engaging in digital vandalism.

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Update 7/9/20 9:53am ET: anonymous edits have since been locked until October on the NYPD Wikipedia page, due to “persistent vandalism and disruption.”

We’ve reached out to the NYPD for comment and will update if we hear back.

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Senior reporter. Tech + labor /// bgmwrites@gmail.com Keybase: keybase.io/bryangm Securedrop: http://gmg7jl25ony5g7ws.onion/

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DISCUSSION

While we legally cannot, with 100% certainty, claim “New York’s finest” tried to lazily edit their own entry on Wikipedia to be infinitely more flattering

I guess this is one of the exceptions to Betteridge’s law of headlines?