BY RODNEY HARRISON
Being a police officer can be a dangerous job. Working as an undercover officer in the units that deal with gangs, guns, or drug dealers takes the “can be” out of the equation. It’s just dangerous.
As Chief of Detectives of the NYPD, I have the honor, but also the great responsibility for deploying the undercover officers who, on a daily basis, walk into some of law enforcement’s most dangerous scenarios. We try as best we can to protect them with covert communications and back-up teams but we know undercover work is also unpredictable.
I know that as a commander, but I also know it as an undercover. On Sept. 21, 1995, I was working as a narcotics undercover with another officer. After attempting a buy from five suspected dealers on the street I couldn’t score. Something was off. After attempting another buy from a couple of other dealers nearby, the same. The vibe was off.
Walking back to the car that night I was being shadowed by my partner, Detective Mike Stoney. I was going over it in my head. We were in the middle of Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1995 where I had bought drugs undercover many times but the tension seemed higher.
As I turned the corner, the five dealers I had first approached saw me walking towards the car. I played it off, went the other way but Stoney walked ahead to distract them from me. The group challenged Mike and one of them, unprovoked, pulled a gun and opened fire.
Stoney was struck by gunfire and seriously hurt, but he fired back. I moved in and returned fire as well. I believe to this day, Stoney saved my life and I may have saved his.
I spent much of that night at the hospital until I knew Mike was going to be OK. The five men involved including the shooter were arrested later that night. Last December when I was promoted to Chief of Detectives, I looked out to my right, and several rows back amid hundreds of people, there was Detective Mike Stoney, retired by then, but still watching my back as I assumed this new responsibility.
This week, the City Council is set to vote on a bill called the POST Act. They are expected to pass it. It is a law, that in its current form, will put NYPD undercover officers in more danger.
It is also easy to fix that law if the City Council will add one sentence to the bill.
The POST Act requires the NYPD to disclose all its “surveillance technology.” Most of what is described as “surveillance technology” in the proposed bill is not for “surveillance” but are actually systems that my detectives use in investigations every day. That’s why we support 99% of what the Post Act requires.
When it comes to security cameras we recover video from to solve crimes or the license plate readers we use to retrace the direction of a getaway car, or facial recognition software that has been instrumental in identifying robbers, hate-crime perpetrators, and sexual predators, the NYPD believes people have a right to know about these systems, how they work and how privacy is protected.
The problem with the POST Act is it also requires the NYPD to give a description of any and all devices that are “used or designed for, collecting, retaining, processing, or sharing audio, video, location, thermal, biometric, or similar information, that is operated by or at the direction of the department.”
The POST Act says the department must place on its public website a list of this equipment with a description of it and how it is used. There is no exemption for the covert electronics used to protect our undercover officers.
Granted, since the days I was undercover and buying drugs with a tape recorder and a transmitter, the electronics have gotten smaller and easier to conceal. But undercover officers face increased dangers.
The drug deals moved away from the open-air drug markets on street corners and into the buildings, hallways, and apartments, where an undercover is at greater risk of being searched more thoroughly than the street.
The City Council can fix the Post Act with one simple sentence. Give the Police Commissioner the authority to report all the technology we use, how we use it and what the rules are which is what the law was intended for but also give the commissioner the ability to exclude descriptions of the technology used by our undercover officers in the field whose jobs are already very dangerous.
Why would we ever legislate a way to make their work more dangerous?
Rodney Harrison is the Chief of Detectives of the NYPD.