For the better part of a decade, stories have
persisted about "cop cabs" appearing from seemingly out of nowhere, lights flashing and sirens blaring, on the streets of New York City. On occasion, clips have popped up on Youtube to provide credence to these claims.
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."
Motherboard's Matt Guariglia filed several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the NYPD and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) to find out what's the deal with the cop cabs:
The requests were relatively simple. I asked for any manuals or procedures that dictated how and under what circumstances the fake taxis were to be used, any legal justifications acquired or written allowing for the use of these vehicles or the creation of a false medallion numbers, any invoices or bills for the cost of acquired or retrofitting a taxicab, and finally any communications between the NYPD and the Taxi and Limousine Commission concerning the use of these vehicles.
Unsurprisngly, transparency was lacking from both agencies. The release of communications between the police and the commission was rejected by the NYPD on the grounds that "non-routine techniques or procedures" would be revealed, potentially endangering "the life or safety of any person." Documents released by the TLC showed that at least five of these vehicles are still in operation, though for some reason, the name used by the police and commission to describe the "cop cabs" was redacted.
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?
In an email to Motherboard, King Downing of the National Lawyer Guild's National Police Accountability Project wrote "The police use of yellow cabs has three main problems—it expands police presence to every cab, increases stop and frisk/racial profiling, and fuels community suspicion of cabs which already have a bad reputation in the community."
Downing added, "No taxi commission in its right mind would want this. They shouldn't want an association with the police any more than a bakery would want the community to connect their business with police jumping out of their trucks."