A version of this article appeared on Motherboard
In 2010, the NYPD taxis briefly made headlines on the internet when a video of a cab pulling over a car surfaced on YouTube. Since then, occasional sightings have led to the expansion of the myth of the undercover “cop cab,” but little has been proven. In an attempt to find out more about this elusive police tool, I made four requests to the NYPD through the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
The requests were relatively simple. I asked for any manuals or procedures that dictated how and under what circumstances the fake taxis were to be used, any legal justifications acquired or written allowing for the use of these vehicles or the creation of a false medallion numbers, any invoices or bills for the cost of acquired or retrofitting a taxicab, and finally any communications between the NYPD and the Taxi and Limousine Commission concerning the use of these vehicles.
The first three requests were rejected for being either too vague, or because no such document existed. The request for communications between the NYPD and TLC was rejected on the grounds that “such information, if disclosed, would reveal non-routine techniques or procedures,” and such a disclosure might, “endanger the life or safety of any person.”
Fortunately, I had also filed a similar request for communications to the TLC directly. After seven months, the TLC released nine emails that expand, if only a little, our knowledge of these vehicles.
The emails reveal that in July 2015, the NYPD received summonses from the TLC for two vehicles that did not have any visible proof of insurance. Unfortunately, even the term that the TLC and NYPD use for these undercover vehicles has been redacted.
The next email from the NYPD requested that the TLC retract the summonses issued to these vehicles.
The exchange suggests either poor communication between the agencies, or that the TLC cannot tell on its end which cabs are being used by the NYPD. The TLC refused to comment and defered to the NYPD, which refused to respond to multiple requests for comment.
Likewise, on August 6, a member of the NYPD emailed the TLC asking for assistance in acquiring new window decals to replace expired ones. In probably one of the biggest disclosures, this email revealed that the NYPD had at least five vehicles that needed new TLC decals. Presumably, these five vehicles all look like taxicabs.
The final set of emails, dated from September to October 2015, show someone from the NYPD requesting that an arrangement be met between the DMV and the TLC so that the license plates on a vehicle did not need to be returned when the registration was renewed. The email also reveals that the DMV gave the vehicle a summons in 2008 that, as of September 28, 2015, was still outstanding.
Although these documents are not nearly satisfying enough for the observer curious about this practice, they represent a small crack in what until now has been a seemingly impenetrable wall of silence around these “cop cabs.”