In 2013, a few friends and I were walking to a party in the Lower East Side when a taxi pulled quickly up to the curb alongside us. Two cops, both in plain clothes and unrecognizable as police with the exception of small earpieces, jumped out of the cab and frisked one of us.
One year later, I witnessed something strange while I walked up Second Avenue. A taxicab had pulled over another taxicab. The vehicle to the rear was indistinguishable from the cab in front of it with the one notable exception being the flashing red and blue lights hidden inside the grill.
In 2010, the NYPD taxis briefly made headlines on the internet when a video of a cab pulling over a car surfaced on YouTube. Since then, occasional sightings have led to the expansion of the myth of the undercover "cop cab," but little has been proven. In an attempt to find out more about this elusive police tool, I made four requests to the NYPD through the Freedom of Information Act.
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.
The first three requests were rejected for being either too vague, or because no such document excised. The request for communications between the NYPD and TLC was rejected on the grounds that, "if disclosed, would reveal non-routine techniques or procedures," and such a disclosure might, "endanger the life or safety of any person."
"What's next? Do we want the police to ride fire trucks? How would that help relations where there's smoke?"
I also filed a request to the TLC. Finally, after seven months, the TLC released nine emails that expand, if only a little, our knowledge of these vehicles.
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.
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.
While the NYPD has yet to publicly confirm what purpose these vehicles serve, New York City civil rights attorney and member of the National Lawyer Guild's National Police Accountability Project King Downing sees their discernible purview as problematic.
"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," he said in an email.
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."
When asked to speculate on the relationship between the NYPD and TLC, Downing said, "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."
"Why do they think cop cabs are necessary?" he continued. "It puts communities further on edge by commandeering civilian institutions and pulling them into the police. What's next? Do we want the police to ride fire trucks? How would that help relations where there's smoke?"
Although these documents are not nearly satisfying enough for the observer curious about this practice, they represent a small crack in what until now has been a seemingly impenetrable wall of silence around these "cop cabs."
This story was produced in partnership with MuckRock.