beaten, blinded Pepper sprayed, cornered like animals, and indiscriminate arrests made for demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice. This is what hundreds of people suffered at the hands of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers in late May and early June 2020, when thousands across the United States protested the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Three years later, a class action lawsuit led to New York City agreeing to pay $9,950 to each of the approximately 1,380 protesters as part of a settlement. According to the legal team behind the class action lawsuit, it is costing taxpayers more than $13 million and is the largest amount paid to protesters in US history.
Lawyers secured the settlement using a little-known tool that instantly classified and analyzed terabytes of video footage from police cameras, helicopter surveillance and social media. “We protested for several weeks. We protested all over New York. We made thousands of arrests,” said David Rankin, partner at the law firm Beldock, Levin & Hoffman, who was part of the protesters’ legal team. “We had thousands of hours of bodycam footage, we had text messages, we had emails, we had a whole truckload of data to get through.”
The path through all this data is paved by Kodak, a video classification tool developed by civil liberties-focused design firm SITU Research. Launched in June 2022, the tool is proving essential in legal battles around the world, where hours of disparate video footage can uncover systematic, state-sponsored violence against protesters.
clip by clip
Dozens of videos shared with WIRED show how the legal team made its case. Using this data, which also includes geospatial information, timestamps and the category of alleged misconduct, we were able to create a map that would allow anyone to view the police incidents that were at the center of the lawsuit. Each point represents an incident that the legal team described as police misconduct. Of the 72 videos the legal team identified as most relevant to their case, the map included 47 videos recorded by police or surveillance cameras. The locations of the remaining 25 videos, which appear to be from social media and other sources, are also marked on the map. In all, the legal team analyzed over 6,300 videos.
Some videos on the cards contain explicit violence and viewers are advised to exercise discretion. Videos play automatically when the sound is on.
In the video we viewed, an NYPD officer can be seen running down the sidewalk spraying pepper spray at a man standing in front of a building not far from the officer. In another video, a policeman hits a protester with a car door while driving on the road. Another video shows a group of officers linking their arms and one of them saying, “Just like we practiced.” The officers then attacked a group of protesters and beat them with batons before escorting a man to the sidewalk. Overall, the footage shows widespread, systematic police misconduct during protests in several New York City neighborhoods from May 28 to June 4, 2020, the lawsuit states.
While looting and vandalism occurred in several areas during the protests, the demonstrations were largely peaceful. The defendants in the lawsuit have admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement, and city attorneys deny any concerted effort to violate protesters’ rights. When contacted for comment, the NYPD referred WIRED to the city’s legal department, which has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Remy Green, partner at Cohen & Green and member of the protesters’ legal team, says the use of police cameras, considered a step in the right direction for civil liberties, became “a band-aid solution to police brutality” Is. Green says a single video can only reveal so much, and police departments can use this limitation to cover up what really happened. A zoom-out to protests with excessive police response The vantage point is needed, which Kodak allowed the legal team to build in. “It gives you a more comprehensive picture of the activities that are happening,” says Green.
The idea to use the codec in the lawsuit stemmed from a related case that was settled earlier this year. Here, Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with SITU Research, analyzes video footage of protests in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, one of the five boroughs of New York City. Their work proved that the NYPD used an anti-protest tactic called “kettling” just before a government-imposed curfew – trapping a group of people so that they could not escape, causing them to disobey orders. In March, a lawsuit against the city over the NYPD’s use of boilers ended with payments of $21,500 to each of more than 300 Mott Haven protesters, believed to be the highest per-capita settlement for a mass arrest in US history. The NYPD said in a statement following the settlement that it had “reviewed” its “policy and training” for monitoring large-scale demonstrations.
After viewing a forensic video investigation presenting SITU’s work on the Mott Haven protests, Rankin asked for help in conducting a similar investigation. But this time, it won’t focus on police crackdowns on a single neighborhood protest, but on protests throughout New York City.
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