Edits to Wikipedia Pages on Bell, Garner, Diallo Traced to 1 Police Plaza
By Kelly Weill via Capital NY
Computers operating on the New York Police Department’s computer network at its 1 Police Plaza headquarters have been used to alter Wikipedia pages containing details of alleged police brutality, a review by Capital has revealed.
“The matter is under internal review,” an NYPD spokeswoman, Det. Cheryl Crispin, wrote in an email to Capital after examples of the changes were presented to the NYPD.
The edits and changes were linked to the NYPD through a series of Internet Protocol addresses, or IP addresses, which can be publicly tracked by various websites. (Here, for example, is one website that shows a number of IP addresses registered to the NYPD.) IP addresses can locate where a computer is when it connects to the Internet.
Computer users identified by Capital as working on the NYPD headquarters’ network have edited and attempted to delete Wikipedia entries for several well-known victims of police altercations, including entries for Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo. Capital identified 85 NYPD addresses that have edited Wikipedia, although it is unclear how many users were involved, as computers on the NYPD network can operate on the department’s range of IP addresses.
NYPD IP addresses have also been used to edit entries on stop-and-frisk, NYPD scandals, and prominent figures in the city’s political and police leadership.
There are more than 15,000 IP addresses registered to the NYPD, which employs 50,000 people, including uniformed officers and civilians. Notable Wikipedia activity was linked to about a dozen of those NYPD IP addresses.
On the evening of Dec. 3, hours after a Staten Island grand jury ruled not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, a user on the 1 Police Plaza network made multiple edits, visible here and here, to the “Death of Eric Garner” Wikipedia entry. The edits, all concerning the actions of Eric Garner and the police officers involved in the confrontation, are as follows:
● “Garner raised both his arms in the air” was changed to “Garner flailed his arms about as he spoke.”
● “[P]ush Garner’s face into the sidewalk” was changed to “push Garner’s head down into the sidewalk.”
● “Use of the chokehold has been prohibited” was changed to “Use of the chokehold is legal, but has been prohibited.”
● The sentence, “Garner, who was considerably larger than any of the officers, continued to struggle with them,” was added to the description of the incident.
● Instances of the word “chokehold” were replaced twice, once to “chokehold or headlock,” and once to “respiratory distress.”
As of March 12, three of these edits (“chokehold or headlock,” “respiratory distress,” and “head down”) remained in “Death of Eric Garner” article, while the rest had been removed in later Wikipedia users’ revisions.
This process of revision and counterrevision is typical of Wikipedia’s self-policing user community. The website allows anyone to edit entries, either logged in with a Wikipedia account, or anonymously, in which case the website logs the user’s IP address and creates a publicly available record of the user’s edits. Edits from 1 Police Plaza were made anonymously, therefore creating a permanent Wikipedia log of edits made on NYPD IP addresses. Using this information, Capital was able to write a computer program that would search Wikipedia for all anonymous edits made on the range of IP addresses registered to 1 Police Plaza.
Over the past decade, NYPD IP addresses have logged hundreds of anonymous Wikipedia edits, many of which had nothing to do with police issues. A long series of edits contributes to entries on the Catholic Church. There is an edit to the entry on British band Chumbawamba, seven edits to the entry on ages of consent in Europe, and an edit vandalizing the entry for “stye” with graphic comments on gay sex. However, a significant number of edits by NYPD IP addresses have been to entries that challenge NYPD conduct.
On Nov. 25, 2006, undercover NYPD officers fired 50 times at three unarmed men, killing Sean Bell, and sparking citywide protests against police brutality. On April 12, 2007, a user on 1 Police Plaza’s network attempted to delete the Wikipedia entry “Sean Bell shooting incident”.
“He [Bell] was in the news for about two months, and now no one except Al Sharpton cares anymore. The police shoot people every day, and times with a lot more than 50 bullets. This incident is more news than notable,” the user wrote on Wikipedia’s internal “Articles for deletion” page.
A user on the NYPD network made a second edit to the Sean Bell entry on Dec. 23, 2009, this time changing “one Latino and two African-American men were shot a total of fifty times” to “one Latino and two African-American men were shot at a total of fifty times” (emphasis Capital’s).
On Nov. 23, 2013, a user on the 1 Police Plaza network edited the Wikipedia entry for Amadou Diallo, an unarmed who was killed when police mistook his wallet for a gun in 1999.
The person using this IP address made two edits to a sentence about NYPD Officer Kenneth Boss, one of the officers involved in the shooting: “Officer Kenneth Boss had been previously involved in an incident where an unarmed man was shot, but remained working as a police officer” was changed to “Officer Kenneth Boss had been previously involved in an incident where an armed man was shot.”
“Unarmed” was changed to “armed,” and “but remained working as a police officer” was omitted entirely.
On Oct. 15, 2013, a user at 1 Police Plaza edited the entry for the “Alexien Lien beating,” an event in which bikers and an undercover NYPD officer chased and assaulted a driver on the West Side Highway. The user deleted paragraphs of potentially anti-NYPD vandalism from the entry. Among the deleted text were claims like “After this incident police were pressuring on bikers because Alexian Lien uncle is their boss. Looks like Alexian has influential friends in the govt and got away with the incident.”
On three separate occasions between October 2012 and March 2013, a user on the 1 Police Plaza network edited the “Stop-and-frisk” entry. The changes are as follows; bolded words indicate edits:
“The stop-and-frisk program of New York City is a practice of the New York City Police Department to stop, question, and search people.” was changed to “The stop-and-frisk program of New York City is a practice of the New York City Police Department to stop, question and, if the circumstances of the stop warrant it, conduct a frisk of the person stopped.”
● “The stop-and-frisk program of New York City is a practice of the New York City Police Department to stop, question and, if the circumstances of the stop warrant it, conduct a frisk of the person stopped.” was changed to “The stop-and-frisk program of New York City is a practice of the New York City Police Department by which a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the circumstances of the stop warrant it, conducts a frisk of the person stopped.”
● “The rules for stop and frisk are found in New York State Criminal Procedure Law section 140.50, and are based on the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Terry v. Ohio” was added to the entry.
● “if the circumstances of the stop warrant it, conducts a frisk of the person stopped” was changed to “if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”
● An extraneous “and” was removed from a sentence.
On two separate occasions, a user on the 1 Police Plaza network edited sections of Wikipedia’s “New York City Police Department” entry that described police misconduct. On June 30, 2006, the user deleted 1,502 characters from the “scandals and corruption” section, including a sentence that claimed “at the end of March, 2006, NYPD started to make changes to this very article in an attempt to censor scandals and corruption information.” The full deleted text can be read here.
On June 19, 2008, a user on the 1 Police Plaza network deleted the entire “Allegations of police misconduct and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB)” and “Other incidents” sections from the entry, for a combined total of 25,611 deleted characters. The full deleted text can be read here and here.
Wikipedia discourages users from making edits that might constitute a conflict of interest. “COI [conflict of interest] editing involves contributing to Wikipedia to promote your own interests, including your business or financial interests, or those of your external relationships, such as with family, friends or employers,” Wikipedia states in its behavioral guidelines. “COI editing is strongly discouraged.”
A list of all anonymous Wikipedia edits made by NYPD IP addresses is available here.
Additional reporting by Azi Paybarah