The New York University Policing Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to partner with communities to promote public safety through democratic engagement, is facing a dilemma.
Founded in 2015 by Barry Friedman, a professor at the NYU School of Law, the project’s purported aim is to reimagine the dynamics of public safety while collaborating closely with so-called “stakeholders” who normally find themselves at odds.
The Policing Project considers itself as being grounded in democratic values, aspiring for racial justice and equality. Friedman is described as one of the country’s principal authorities on constitutional law, policing, criminal procedure, and the federal courts, previously serving as vice dean for NYU’s School of Law. Yet the nonprofit has garnered widespread criticism from the student body.
In April, a coalition of law students at New York University, with support from the community group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, shared a lengthy statement accusing the nonprofit’s funders and research of harming marginalized communities after NYU students discovered various police technology, surveillance, and weaponry companies were among the nonprofit’s partners and funders. These companies include ShotSpotter, Axon, Mark43, and more.
According to the statement, “the Policing Project works to sanitize and legitimize a limited version of public safety that relies on increased weaponry for law enforcement and surveillance of poor, marginalized, Black and brown communities.” Among the student’s demands are for the Policing Project to reject funding from law enforcement agencies and companies profiting off police violence and surveillance.
“NYU students have been embarrassed and outraged by the Policing Project for a long time,” said Daad Sharfi, cochair of the student organization Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, in a statement on behalf of the student coalition. Sharfi argued that elite institutions such as NYU have often played a role in perpetuating deep social injustices, but what brought the Policing Project to their attention was their “egregious and acutely harmful manifestation” of this role.
Shakeer Rahman, a lawyer and community organizer with Stop LAPD Spying, a community group focused on abolishing the police state, has been working closely with NYU students in bringing to light the Policing Project’s dubious relationships with controversial companies. Rahman argues that academic scholarship has long been a way for law enforcement to sanitize police violence.
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“As the policing industry is destabilized by abolitionist organizing and insurgency, police look to universities to help absorb those shocks, and regain their footing. This is a role that universities and academic research have always played,” stated Rahman.
Certainly, policing norms and regulations are not exclusively decided by the government—they are shaped by everything from so-called bipartisan or neutral nonprofit consultants to reform advocates and academics. Today, Rahman said, research generated in academic institutions like NYU provides the ideological scaffolding that police use to support policies avowing the acceptability of police violence.
The concern for academic whitewashing is reminiscent of the infamous “broken windows theory” and its cooptation by police across the United States to legitimate the increase of street patrols and arbitrary police discretion on the streets. Originally published in The Atlantic by two officials from the nonprofit Police Foundation, the 1982 article used the image of broken windows as a metaphor linking urban disorder to serious crime in neighborhoods. This academic theory was central to the criminalization and surveillance of city spaces, the racial profiling of whole communities, and the rise of mass incarceration.
“When universities lend their names to this kind of research they give an air of legitimacy to deeply harmful police practices because they claim to be concerned about the social impact of their institutions and to uphold ethical research standards,” said Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the best-selling book The End of Policing. Big-money donors, like the Charles Koch Foundation, who are ostensibly interested in “propping up the legitimacy of policing,” can find nonprofit recipients to engage in projects to “restore trust in the police,” rather than produce material justice and public safety.
In a privately circulated e-mail, Friedman addressed parts of the NYU student statement and defended the Policing Project from the students’ criticisms, extolling the track record of the nonprofit’s work.
“Our audit of Persistent Surveillance Systems [the Baltimore ‘spy plane’] produced critical information that played a role in the federal courts holding such surveillance was unconstitutional,” wrote Friedman. He also insists that the Policing Project met with many groups before the release of its audit of Ring, an Amazon-owned home security company, which agreed that its engagement produced important information that effected change. Additionally, Friedman argues the nonprofit sued the state of Oregon because of its intelligence hub that was spying on activities protected by the Constitution, which include Black Lives Matter protests and Indigenous people’s demonstrations against a natural gas pipeline.
“To suggest we are pro-surveillance, particularly in ways that are harmful to minority communities, is both wrong and hurtful. Our record indicates quite the opposite,” wrote Friedman in his e-mail.
Stop LAPD Spying published a rebuttal of Friedman’s e-mail, saying he did not address the substance of the student’s concerns regarding the nonprofit’s partnering with ShotSpotter and Axon, and accepting money from companies that have negatively impacted the civil liberties of heavily policed communities.
ShotSpotter has accrued an unsettling list of controversies since its founding in 1996 and is known for its gunshot detection system that uses acoustic sensors to locate and alert police of gunfire. The company has received significant criticism for generating false alerts almost solely in non-white neighborhoods, allegedly landing a man in prison for nearly a year on false murder charges, and purportedly causing the death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.
As the students note, Friedman does not address the Policing Project’s January 2021 “cost-benefit analysis” research report on ShotSpotter. The report’s authors insist that, although the company’s “technology can be quite expensive,” there were few social costs associated with it. However, in August, the Associated Press published an investigative report that found ShotSpotter’s system could miss live gunfire “right under its microphone” or misclassify fireworks or backfiring cans as gunshots.
Additionally, “forensic reports prepared by ShotSpotter’s employees have been used in court to improperly claim that a defendant shot at police, or provide questionable counts of the number of shots allegedly fired by defendants. Judges in a number of cases have thrown out the evidence,” stated the report. ShotSpotter also received a blistering review by Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office, which found the company’s alerts to be rarely helpful in leading Chicago police to evidence that would prove an actual gun crime. The report also reveals that ShotSpotter has provided unrestricted funding to the Policing Project for its policing technology work since 2018, that the authors of the Policing Project report were compensated for time and travel in carrying out the audit of the company for the report, and that the nonprofit’s preexisting relationship with ShotSpotter and preexisting audit played a role in “initiating” the report.
Friedman has stated that some of the funding comes from the “philanthropic arms” of companies with supposedly “nothing to do with policing technology at all.” Rahman and the NYU students are skeptical.
“Of all the charities that companies like ShotSpotter, Mark43, Amazon, or Microsoft might choose, does Friedman really believe his donors invest in the Policing Project solely out of philanthropic benevolence?” asked Stop LAPD Spying. “Even within the broad range of advocacy and research conducted at NYU, why is it that ShotSpotter funds Policing Project’s work over literally any other available cause? Either Friedman is oblivious about how his funders weaponize his work, or he wants the rest of us to be.”
“Imagine if coal companies were paying NYU professors to write the rules governing climate change and mine safety, and the rules they wrote promoted the company’s business,” said Rahman. “Most people would condemn that. But it doesn’t draw the same scrutiny for policing.”
When reached for comment, Michael Orey, public affairs director of NYU School of Law, with which the Policing Project is affiliated, said the Policing Project does not speak for NYU Law and NYU Law does not speak for the project. “Like all of our research centers, institutes, and projects, the Policing Project enjoys academic freedom in its work,” said Orey.
Friedman also issued a comment stating that the Policing Project “discloses its sources of funding on its website, as well as in the research that it produces. That research also is released to the public. We encourage people to read that research, and to review our public work, on its merits.”
For the skeptical NYU law students, a close reading of PP’s work on its merits shows that “by receiving funding from companies that depend on revenue from public investment in policing and then producing research and regulatory frameworks on behalf of those companies, the Policing Project makes clear who this mission is truly serving: police and the businesses who profit off policing.”