Activists Are Using Traffic Cameras to Track Police Brutality

The community-owned NYC Mesh is creating a massive database of traffic cameras to track police abuse.
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Image: NYC Mesh

A group of activists that runs a free community-owned internet service provider in New York City is now archiving hundreds of gigabytes of the city’s surveillance camera footage in an effort to keep police accountable.

NYC Mesh announced its new project on Wednesday. The idea is to create an archive of—ideally—all of the city’s traffic camera feeds, which are already available to the public in real time, but not in archival form.


“Currently, to witness and document an incident using the [Department of Transportation] footage, you have to be watching the right camera at the right time and be ready to take a screenshot,” Aakash Patel, a volunteer for NYC Mesh, wrote in a blog post. “The archive makes it possible to review footage after an event has taken place. By making this resource available to the public, we are providing another source of visual evidence.”

Screenshot NYC Mesh Cameras

The archive is currently hosted on Google Drive and only includes feeds from Manhattan and Brooklyn, as the other boroughs’ feeds aren’t accessible, but the activists hope to expand it to the rest of the city soon.

Unfortunately, Patel said that it seems the DOT is throttling the tool. After a couple of days when he was able to obtain more than 200 gigabytes of pictures per day, it’s slowed down considerably.

“I actually submitted a request to the city on Monday to get a formal feed of the cameras, as they would provide a news agency, and no one has gotten back to me,” Patel told Motherboard in an online chat. “We need someone from the DOT to help us expand this to the whole city.”

The project works like this: NYC Mesh has written a tool that archives an image from every public camera every time the feed gets updated, which can be between one and 30 seconds. The pictures are then uploaded on Google Drive in bundles organized by hourly folders that have a text file containing information about the camera ID, the borough it is in, and its specific location.

“We’ve watched as CNN journalists captured their own arrest on camera. We’ve seen military-grade weapons used against peaceful protestors thanks to the hundreds of people who filmed the June 1 Lafayette Square rally. The video of Martin Gugino getting pushed by police in Buffalo has been viewed more than 82 million times on Twitter, at the time of writing,” the blog post read. “The NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) provides public access to live streams of its traffic cameras on its website but it does not make recorded data available. But if the government can access all of this footage to monitor citizens then we should have access to monitor the police.”

Given that public officials, including mayors and governors, are gaslighting us about police violence, any project that brings more transparency, and more eyes on police actions, can make a huge difference.

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