Beaten, blinded by pepper spray, herded like animals and arrested indiscriminately for protesting against police brutality and racial injustice. Such was the fate hundreds suffered at the hands of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers in late May and early June 2020, as 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 some 1,380 protesters $9,950 each in a settlement. Costing taxpayers more than $13 million, it is the highest amount paid to protesters in U.S. history, according to the legal team behind the class action lawsuit.
The lawyers won the settlement using a little-known tool that helped them quickly categorize and analyze terabytes of video footage from police body cameras, helicopter surveillance and social media. “We had several weeks of protests. We had protests all over New York City. We’ve had thousands of arrests,” says David Rankin, a partner at law firm Beldock, Levine & Hoffman who was part of the protesters’ legal team. “We had tens of thousands of hours of body camera footage, we had text messages, we had emails, we just had an absolute load of data to transmit.”
The path through all of this data was traced by Codec, a video categorization tool developed by civil liberties-focused design agency SITU Research. Launched in June 2022, the tool is proving essential in legal battles around the world, where hours of disparate video footage can reveal state-orchestrated and state-sponsored violence against protesters.
clip by clip
Dozens of videos shared with WIRED show how the legal team built their case. Using this data, which also included geospatial information, timestamps, and the category of alleged misconduct, we were able to create a map that allows anyone to monitor the police incidents that were central to the trial. Each dot represents an incident that the legal team characterized as police misconduct. Of the 72 videos the legal team flagged as most relevant to their case, the map includes 47 videos recorded by police body cameras or surveillance cameras. The locations of the remaining 25 videos, which appear to have been pulled from social media and other sources, are also marked on the map. In total, the legal team analyzed more than 6,300 videos.
Some of the videos on the card contain graphic violence, and viewer discretion is advised. Videos will play automatically with sound enabled.
Among the videos we reviewed, an NYPD officer can be seen running down the sidewalk while pepper spraying a person who is standing against a building, entirely clear of the officer. In another video, an officer hits a protester with a car door as he drives down the street. Another video shows a group of officers entwining their arms as one says: ‘Just like the fuck we practiced.’ Officers then charge into a group of protesters before targeting a person on the sidewalk and beating them with batons. Taken together, the images show widespread and systematic police misconduct during protests that took place from May 28 to June 4, 2020, in several New York City neighborhoods, according to the lawsuit.
While looting and vandalism took place in several neighborhoods during the protests, the demonstrations were largely peaceful. Defendants in the lawsuit have not admitted wrongdoing under the settlement, and city prosecutors deny an orchestrated effort to violate protesters’ rights. 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, a partner at Cohen & Green and a member of the protesters’ legal team, says the use of police body cameras, which has been touted as a step in the right direction for civil liberties, has become “a sort of band-aid solution to police brutality”. A single video can only reveal so much, Green says, and police departments can use this limitation to hide what really happened. Protests that are met with an extreme police response require a magnified point of view, which Codec enabled the legal team to create. “It gives you a much more complete overview of the activities that took place,” says Green.
The idea to use Codec in the lawsuit came from a related case settled earlier this year. Here, Human Rights Watch worked with SITU Research to analyze video footage of protests in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, one of New York’s five boroughs. Their work proved that the NYPD used an anti-protest tactic called “kettling” – trapping a group of people so they could not escape – just before a government-imposed curfew, ensuring they violated the order. In March, a lawsuit against the city over the NYPD’s use of kettling ended in a $21,500 payment to each of more than 300 Mott Haven protesters, which is estimated to be the highest per person settlement for a mass arrest in US history. The NYPD said in a press release following the settlement it has since “revised” its “policies and training to monitor large-scale protests”.
Having seen the forensic video investigation SITU’s work on the Mott Haven protests produced, Rankin asked for help in conducting a similar investigation. But this time, it wouldn’t focus on police conduct in a single protest in one neighborhood, but rather on protests across New York City.