Skip Navigation
Court Case Tracker

Brennan Center for Justice v. New York Police Department

In December of 2016, the Brennan Center sued the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for records about the NYPD’s use of predictive policing technologies after the Department failed to respond adequately to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. After a ruling from the court, the Department finally began disclosing responsive documents in November 2018.

Last Updated: August 6, 2021
Published: May 19, 2017

In Decem­ber of 2016, the Bren­nan Center sued the New York City Police Depart­ment (NYPD) for records about the NYPD’s use of predict­ive poli­cing tech­no­lo­gies after the Depart­ment failed to respond adequately to a Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Law (FOIL) request. After a ruling from the court, the Depart­ment finally began disclos­ing respons­ive docu­ments in Novem­ber 2018.

Read about the docu­ments that the Bren­nan Center received from NYPD here.

Predict­ive poli­cing employs computer model­ing to try to anti­cip­ate crime and to inform deploy­ment of police resources. Algorithms analyze vari­ous data­sets to predict where, what, and some­times even who may be involved in a future crime, but there are signi­fic­ant concerns that they may also replic­ate exist­ing patterns of discrim­in­a­tion.

In all, the Bren­nan Center received approx­im­ately 2,600 pages of inform­a­tion regard­ing the NYPD’s test­ing of three commer­cial predict­ive poli­cing programs and its ulti­mate decision to build in-house the predict­ive soft­ware it would use to determ­ine officer deploy­ment. The records include internal commu­nic­a­tions and notes; promo­tional mater­i­als, email exchanges, and contracts from outside soft­ware vendors; and numer­ous output maps and data collec­ted by the depart­ment’s in-house algorithms. This trove provides a crucial view into the mech­an­ics of predict­ive poli­cing, contrib­ut­ing to a more informed public discourse about the costs and consequences of such programs.

NYPD did not relin­quish this inform­a­tion easily. On Decem­ber 27, 2017, the New York State Supreme Court ordered the NYPD to produce these records. Both parties filed cross motions for rear­gu­ment, which were denied in July of 2018. Also in July 2018, the Court issued an order reject­ing NYPD’s argu­ment that certain docu­ments were protec­ted from disclos­ure under FOIL exemp­tions, clear­ing the way for the NYPD to disclose the records as required.

Never­the­less, the depart­ment did not begin produ­cing docu­ments until Novem­ber 2018. And the NYPD did not finish releas­ing the records until April 2019, just short of three years after the Bren­nan Center filed its original FOIL request. The depart­ment’s obstruc­tion­ist approach is concern­ing because citizens and watch­dog organ­iz­a­tions should not have to wait years for insight into the tech­no­lo­gies shap­ing police beha­vior. Never­the­less, the docu­ments repres­ent a victory for members of the public who deserve to know how their police depart­ment is alloc­at­ing its resources, and for civil liber­ties advoc­ates commit­ted to under­stand­ing the implic­a­tions of predict­ive poli­cing for indi­vidual freedoms.

  • Read the Decem­ber 27, 2017 Order here.
  • Read the May 18, 2018 amend­ment to the Order and letter to NYPD here.
  • Read the Bren­nan Center’s Memor­andum of Law in Support of Motion for Limited Rear­gu­ment here.
  • Read the NYPD’s Affi­davit in Support of Motion for Leave to Rear­gue here.
  • See the orders deny­ing the cross motions for re-argu­ment here.
  • See the order order­ing the NYPD to produce addi­tional docu­ments here.

You can read more about the request and litig­a­tion below.

On Decem­ber 20, 2016, the Bren­nan Center filed an Article 78 action against the NYPD for fail­ing to respond adequately to a FOIL request for records.

Publicly avail­able purchase orders showed that the City of New York had paid over $2.5 million to Palantir Tech­no­lo­gies since 2012 for soft­ware, main­ten­ance, and support. Palantir markets its tech­no­logy as a plat­form designed to allow law enforce­ment to pull in data from a wide range of sources to assist with case manage­ment. Palantir also offers a predict­ive poli­cing feature that suggests geographic areas where crimes are more likely to occur. The design and imple­ment­a­tion of this tech­no­logy could mater­i­ally affect the civil rights of New York­ers, but there is little public inform­a­tion about the actual costs and para­met­ers of the NYPD’s imple­ment­a­tion of predict­ive poli­cing tech­no­logy.

The Bren­nan Center’s original FOIL request, filed on June 14, 2016, sought to under­stand how the NYPD developed, tested, and used predict­ive analytic tools in its oper­a­tions. The request was denied in its entirety in late June. The Bren­nan Center appealed the decision, and NYPD issued a blanket denial of the appeal on August 15, 2016. The Bren­nan Center sought to have the court compel the NYPD to disclose the docu­ments required by FOIL and/or to comply with FOIL’s require­ment that it describe in more detail that docu­ments that it is not disclos­ing.

On April 7, 2017, the NYPD respon­ded to the Bren­nan Center’s lawsuit and agreed to provide some docu­ments in response to the Bren­nan Center’s request, includ­ing some vendor agree­ments and email commu­nic­a­tions with predict­ive poli­cing soft­ware vendors (which were mostly redac­ted), a set of privacy protec­tion guidelines from 2009, and a copy of an article on the depart­ment’s Domain Aware­ness System. The police depart­ment also disclosed that they do not use Palantir for predict­ive poli­cing, and instead use a system that was developed in-house, after test­ing products from three differ­ent vendors. NYPD main­tained, however, that they should not be required to produce any docu­ments about their actual test­ing of commer­cial products or their current use of predict­ive poli­cing soft­ware; they argued that inform­a­tion about tests of commer­cial products could reveal vendor’s trade secrets, while inform­a­tion about inputs and algorithms in use in the depart­ment would poten­tially allow crim­in­als to replic­ate the results and predict police move­ments.

Read the NYPD’s Veri­fied Answer and Memor­andum of Law.

The Bren­nan Center did not believe that the inform­a­tion it was seek­ing would implic­ate vendor trade secrets or allow crim­in­als to replic­ate the NYPD’s results. Never­the­less, it narrowed its request in its May 18, 2017, reply to focus on records reflect­ing test­ing and util­iz­a­tion of the predict­ive poli­cing system, as well as the histor­ical inputs and outputs of the model. Release of this inform­a­tion would not implic­ate current or future invest­ig­a­tions without the under­ly­ing code but could provide a basis from which to under­stand how the tools are gener­ally being employed at the NYPD. The Bren­nan Center also renewed its request for audits of the system and up-to-date govern­ing policies and proced­ures. Finally, the Bren­nan Center reques­ted that the NYPD produce relev­ant vendor commu­nic­a­tions and redact trade secrets inform­a­tion, if any, rather than with­hold­ing them entirely. Disclos­ure of these commu­nic­a­tions would signi­fic­antly contrib­ute to trans­par­ency regard­ing the NYPD’s goals for and use of the soft­ware. Judge Barbara Jaffe held oral argu­ments on August 30, 2017.

As described above, Judge Jaffe issued an opin­ion in Decem­ber 2017, direct­ing the NYPD to disclose the major­ity of the docu­ments reques­ted, and the records are now avail­able at this page.

The Bren­nan Center was repres­en­ted on this matter by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sulli­van, LLP.

Citizens deserve to know how their police depart­ment is alloc­at­ing resources to fight crime. The Bren­nan Center will continue to fight for public release of inform­a­tion about tech­no­lo­gies that implic­ate civil liber­ties.