The New York Police Department rolled out a “game truck” this month in an effort to connect with youth, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, where community relations with law enforcement have been strained thanks to generations of mistrust.
“This right here is going to be the game changer this summer,” Jeffrey Maddrey, the chief of community affairs for the department, said in a video introducing the vehicle. “We’re coming out to your block, [and] we’re coming out to your neighborhood. … Making sure our young people have a safe summer, a safe space, and just know that the NYPD is here to support them.”
The “game truck” is outfitted with an assortment of video game consoles — including Nintendo Switches, PS5s and Xbox Series S — with the goal of connecting young New Yorkers with officers over video games. The exterior of the truck is painted with various Marvel characters and the words “NYPD Game Truck” in large block letters. The contents of the truck come thanks to a “generous donation” from the New York City Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to the NYPD, according to Maddrey.
“Police departments have a long history of attempting to engage with youth with extracurricular activities — not so much educational activities, but just forming a bond,” Kirk Burkhalter, a former 20-year NYPD detective, told Yahoo News. “So this certainly follows a tradition.”
The first truck in service was spotted over the July 4 weekend at the north end of Manhattan’s East River Park, near several New York City Housing Authority buildings, by Vice reporter Jason Koebler. Another truck was recently seen in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn.
But despite the NYPD’s stated intent, the game truck program has its critics.
“Some people might like to believe that this is well intentioned, but I think it really just reflects the magnitude at which they intertwine themselves into our communities,” Olayemi Olurin, a public defender with the Legal Aid Society, told Yahoo News. “It’s really just another means of indoctrinating people into believing the police are necessary and have to be around. And it’s another way in which the same communities are forced to have constant police presence.”
Controversial past practices by the NYPD have also raised suspicions about the use of game trucks. In 2018, when police were questioning a 12-year-old boy suspected of committing a felony, they gave him a soda purchased from McDonald’s. When the interview was finished and the boy was allowed to go, police recovered the straw he had been using and, without his knowledge or consent, used it to enter his DNA into a database, the New York Times reported. The boy’s DNA did not link him to evidence recovered at a crime scene, and his family had to petition a court to get it removed from the police database.
Because of incidents like this, public defenders in particular have been some of the staunchest critics of the game truck program.
“My initial reaction was a reflexive ‘Do not go in there!’ and I stand by it,” MaryAnne Kaishian, senior policy counsel with Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender organization, told Yahoo News. “For decades, the NYPD has aggressively sought to target and surveil New Yorkers, particularly young Black and brown people, and to harvest and catalog their data in secretive internal archives such as the Gang Database and rogue DNA database.”
Kaishian believes game trucks are an optimal setting for collecting a range of data, from what she calls “biometric information — such as fingerprints and DNA — to seemingly innocuous information about social networks and neighborhoods that will ultimately be used to permanently label and harass young people.”
“This is a matter of safety and the protection of their private information, which the police have continually sought to obtain by any means,” she said. “Even inadvertently providing personal data to the police is not in anyone’s best interest.”
Other public defenders agree with that assessment.
“This is predatory,” New York City public defender Eliza Orlins wrote on Instagram. “Over-surveillance is already a huge problem, and the police will use any methods available to them. As a public defender, I’ve represented kids as young as 15 whose DNA was surreptitiously collected by NYPD, like from a can of soda, a used straw, or a bag of chips — items often offered by cops to the children. The last thing they need to be doing is voluntarily entering cop vans.”
The NYPD did not respond to multiple requests from Yahoo News for comment for this article. The Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York also did not respond to a request for comment.
Disputes over the NYPD’s collection of private information are nothing new. In 2018, then-Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea, who is now the NYC police commissioner, announced that the NYPD’s Criminal Group Database, or Gang Database, was made up of 99 percent nonwhite people, particularly Black and Latino young men. Children as young as 13 were being added to the database and remain there for an unspecified amount of time.
The NYPD claims the database helps police learn about gang affiliations, according to Shea, but the department has not made clear how it protects individuals from being falsely identified as members. Database entries can include an individual’s name, address, social media accounts and other personal information. Critics of the database say it has taken the place of the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which was ended in 2014 after a judge ruled it to be unconstitutional, as a way to keep tabs on at-risk youth.
“Prosecutors rely on this information from the police all the time, and they use it to request higher bail on their cases,” Anthony Posada, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, told Gothamist. “People are being deported as a result of these allegations because a simple allegation of being involved in a gang can land somebody in ICE custody.”
Burkhalter, the former longtime NYPD officer, says he understands the fear many parents may have in having their children enter the truck, but he says the program’s intent is to keep them safe.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it is absolutely well intentioned by the police department,” said Burkhalter, who is currently a professor of law at New York Law School. He also noted that there are easier ways for the police to obtain DNA for its database.
“As an investigator, it would be far easier for me to go to your home and sift through your trash outside and grab a straw or a cup or a hairbrush and collect your DNA that way, than waiting for you to enter a game truck,” he said. “So I don’t think the purpose of the game truck at all is to just stockpile data on individuals.”
Olurin, of the Legal Aid Society, believes the tendency she sees of the police viewing entire communities as potential crime suspects helps explain why mistrust of police is so prevalent.
“If you don’t want the community to feel [at odds with police], you should listen to the needs and demands of the community,” she said. “It’s not going to be a game truck. It’s to abide by the law and respect people’s rights and their autonomy to walk freely in their own communities, instead of piling yourselves into the communities and policing how people behave.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Gwynne Hogan, NYPD Community Affairs Bureau
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