The Rules of New York Cop Cab
Apr. 1, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Are police officers masquerading as taxi drivers in New York City? Recent Freedom of Information Act requests allegedly reveal New York Police Department officers impersonating Robert DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle.
Though the NYPD has never publicly acknowledged the reasons for deploying undercover patrol cars meticulously disguised as the city’s ubiquitous yellow cabs, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman revealed in their 2013 book, Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America, that at least one yellow cab, “complete with an authentic taxi medallion registered under a fake name” was used to conduct surveillance on Muslims in mosques and other gathering places by the NYPD’s now-disbanded “Demographics Unit.”
The “Demographics Unit,” a program ended in 2014 by Bill Bratton, was enacted after 9/11 to conduct surveillance on brown-skinned persons people of terrorist decent “potential terrorist groups.” It never found any, but the NYPD’s attempt at an “intelligence” division kept running two years after journalists exposed the cop cab as a tool. You’d think a botched attempt at ethnic profiling would go away after being revealed. That’s what people with reasonable minds would do. Emails released by the Taxi and Limousine Commission confirm long standing suspicions about the NYPD’s idea of “reasonable.”
The emails reveal that in the summer of 2015, the NYPD received summonses from the TLC for two vehicles that did not have any visible proof of insurance. Unfortunately, even the term that the TLC and NYPD use for these undercover vehicles has been redacted.
The next email from the NYPD requested that the TLC retract the summonses issued to these vehicles.
The exchange suggests either poor communication between the agencies, or that the TLC cannot tell on its end which cabs are being used by the NYPD. The TLC refused to comment and defered to the NYPD, which refused to respond to multiple requests for comment.
Apparently the First Rule of Cop Cab is “you do not talk about Cop Cab.” The second rule of “Cop Cab” is so obvious I’m not going to beat that joke to death.
Likewise, on August 6, a member of the NYPD emailed the TLC asking for assistance in acquiring new window decals to replace expired ones. In probably one of the biggest disclosures, this email revealed that the NYPD had at least five vehicles that needed new TLC decals. Presumably, these five vehicles all look like taxicabs.
The final set of emails, dated from September to October 2015, show someone from the NYPD requesting that an arrangement be met between the DMV and the TLC so that the licence plates on a vehicle did not need to be returned when the registration was renewed. The email also reveals that the DMV gave the vehicle a summons in 2008 that, as of September 28, 2015, was still outstanding.
Rule Three of Cop Cab seems to be, “we need more privileges than the average taxi driver.” Raise your hand if you’re surprised police would demand more rights than the average person.
New York civil rights attorney King Downing knows about the Cop Cab. So do residents in Harlem, who’ve had “adverse interactions” with the Cop Cab, just like Downing did.
Downing, who lived in Harlem, said the locals are aware that the NYPD sometimes use undercover cabs. “…The community knew that police rode around in and jumped like that,” he wrote. “We would usually see two people in the front seat—two bulky white men in the front with no one in the back.”
He was even pulled over by police in an undercover cab himself once about 10 years ago, he said. “The car that stopped me wasn’t just yellow,” he said. “It looked like a complete taxi.”
Reason’s Anthony Fisher wonders why the NYPD keeps the cop cab around, since they’re being used for means other than “surveillance.” I’d argue it’s the same reason cops keep their war toys essential instruments for civilian protection in use, but that’s just the cynic in me.
Though the NYPD appears to be intent on keeping this particular law enforcement tool shrouded in secrecy, it would be interesting to find out what the official departmental policy is regarding the use of undercover taxicabs. If they were once used as a means of surveillance, why do they occasionally make traffic stops, thus blowing the cover of the tool?
So the Cop Cab remains in use on New York streets. If you find yourself in need of a taxi during your next visit to the city, just make sure you’re sober, white, and appear completely non-threatening and totally compliant. Otherwise you might learn Rule Four of Cop Cab: If it’s your first time in Cop Cab, you’re probably going to jail.