Why Did the NYPD Film People Leaving a Drake Concert?

“Something tells me they don’t do that after Billy Joel shows at Madison Square Garden.”
drake-nypd-filming
Rapper Drake performs onstage during "Lil Baby & Friends Birthday Celebration Concert" at State Farm Arena on December 9, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Prince Williams/Wireimage)/A member of the NYPD films concertgoers as they leave the Apollo Theater on Saturday, January 21, 2023.

People leaving Drake’s sold-out concert at the Apollo Theater in New York City Saturday night were outraged to be met by an NYPD officer recording them. Footage of the surveillance taken at the historic Black venue soon went viral, with more than 25 million views as of Tuesday morning.

“Are police allowed to do this?” one Twitter user asked.

“Something tells me they don’t do that after Billy Joel shows at [Madison Square Garden],” said another.

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The viral video shows a Community Affairs officer with the city’s 28th Precinct recording people on a smartphone as they leave the crowded Harlem theater. The video left New Yorkers concerned about what the footage was being used for, and why a concert featuring one of hip-hop’s biggest acts was where the NYPD wanted to record.

Now, as the police department tries to temper people’s concerns, New Yorkers, social media users, and anti-surveillance advocates are calling it yet another breach of trust between the police and minority communities.

In an email to VICE News, the NYPD’s public information office said the recording was for social media purposes. “The officer was taking video for an upcoming Twitter post that will highlight local community events,” an NYPD spokesperson said. “The video will not be utilized for any other reason.”

But critics say that even if the video is just for social media, putting concertgoers in the NYPD’s social media posts without their knowledge is reason enough for New Yorkers to be upset.

“Ultimately, there is not a single person at that concert who consented to being part of the NYPD’s PR strategy,” Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project told VICE News.

The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project is a nonprofit that litigates to defend the public’s right to privacy from mass surveillance, and advocates against the discriminatory use of surveillance technology. According to Cahn, the NYPD recording people highlights how much of a wild west police-related surveillance has become.

“We’ve all passed those giant signs saying ‘you’re entering a place where you’re being recorded.’ We’ve seen those for film shoots and fashion shoots,” he said. “I don’t understand why the NYPD thinks it wouldn’t have to put the public at notice if their story is true.”

“Even in the best case, this was problematic,” Cahn continued. “When it comes to the NYPD and surveillance, I’m certainly not about to take them at their word.”

There’s precedent for New Yorkers’ skepticism about the cops recording them. Last November, a New Jersey resident was denied entry to a Rockettes show at Radio City Music Hall because the facial recognition technology used by the company that owns the venue put her on a list of people to exclude from the site. In 2020, the NYPD used facial recognition tech to track Black Lives Matter protesters after the police murder of George Floyd.

In 2021, the department even misled the public about their cozy relationship with facial recognition tech company Clearwater AI, initially saying that they only “trialed” the tech, when in actuality they’d been in talks with the company and using their tools for two years.

The NYPD also has a history of targeting and investigating Black people and communities of color within hip-hop, going as far as establishing a specific unit for hip-hop related crimes.

As smartphones have become ubiquitous in the last decade, police departments around the country have been critical of the public’s own use of cellphones, regardless of their own policies on the matter. Several states including Oklahoma, Florida, and Nevada have passed laws limiting when and how a person can film the cops as they carry out their duties. 

The NYPD has also been filming the public since well before the age of the cell phone. The department’s Technical Assistance Response Unit was known for attending protests in the city, with officers capturing what was happening on camcorders.

“I remember as a New Yorker growing up, protesting the NYPD and having the TARU unit there with camcorders videotaping everyone who was present at the protest,” Cahn said. “It wasn’t a way to actually solve crime, but was a great way to chill dissent. I don’t think New Yorkers should have to worry that typically going to a show is going to get them put into the NYPD archives or added to some watchlist.”

Today, much of the work of surveillance is done by an elaborate network of street cameras that dot street corners throughout the city. This dense network makes surveillance experts even more skeptical of the NYPD’s activity at the Drake concert.

“The fact that the city is covered in surveillance and yet they felt the need to approach people with a separate camera in their face in a way they couldn’t necessarily avoid adds an extra layer of suspicion,” Jerome Greco, a digital forensics public defender for the Legal Aid Society in New York, told VICE News.

“There’s definitely a lot of problems about how they choose where to put those security cameras around the city, but specifically going to a particular event headlined by an incredibly popular Black hip hop artist is more troubling than usual,” he continued.

Mayor Eric Adams downplayed concerns over the recording at the Apollo, telling reporters at a Monday press conference that comments on social media don’t reflect how real New Yorkers feel.

“Twitter is not real,” Adams said. “Those little people who go back and forth all the time talking to themselves, it’s not about what’s on social media, it’s about those on social security.” he said. “You have those who are sitting at home, in the corner of their rooms, trying to find a reason to divide NYPD from everyday New Yorkers. [...] That’s not reality, let them keep complaining.”

Greco said the Mayor's efforts to quell concerns were half-baked.

“The mayor’s words are an attempt to paint anybody who has a problem with this as not being a ‘real New Yorker,’” Greco said. “That’s problematic because it's meant to discourage anybody from pointing out abuses by the police, abuses of surveillance, and being able to speak up about it as if their opinion doesn't matter as much as somebody who defends the police no matter what.”

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