The New York Police Department has confirmed that at least some edits to Wikipedia entries about people who died following confrontations with NPYD officers were made from computers on the department’s servers, Capital New York reported Sunday.
The department’s admission came two days after Capital first reported that hundreds of Wikipedia edits were made from computers on the NYPD network — and that those edits included tweaks to Wikipedia articles about Eric Garner, Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo, all of whom were killed in police-involved incidents. Capital also identified edits from NYPD servers to a “stop-and-frisk” entry and the portion of Wikipedia’s NYPD entry that deals with allegations of misconduct.
New York police officials said they were only able to identify the editor for the “Death of Eric Garner” page because the department only keeps computer activity logs for about a year. In total, the edits identified by Capital New York span about a decade and include 85 IP addresses registered to 1 Police Plaza.
Deputy Commissioner Stephen Davis’s statement to Capital specifically addressed two rounds of edits to Garner article, on the same December evening that a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved in Garner’s choke-hold death. “We are conducting an internal investigation to identify what member of the service may have accessed the Department’s server,” Davis said. “These incidents did not originate from computers located at Police Headquarters.”
One such edit: “Garner raised both his arms in the air” was changed to “Garner flailed his arms about as he spoke.”
Juliet Barbara, a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation – the non-profit that supports Wikipedia – said in an emailed statement that “edits by the NYPD about something the pertains to their work would generally be considered a conflict of interest by the Wikipedia community.”
The site, in the interest of maintaining the neutrality of its articles, strongly discourages people from editing articles in which they might have a personal or professional stake. Wikipedia’s long-standing conflict of interest policy is outlined in more detail here. It reads, in part: “when advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.”
Wikipedia’s editorial policies are enforced by the volunteer editors of its community and not the Wikimedia Foundation, but Barbara noted that “the community has developed a number of governance mechanisms, including warnings and blockings, that empower editors to respond” to apparent violations of the site’s policies.
“One of Wikipedia’s great strengths is its transparency: Every change to an article is public information,
Davis told Capital that the anonymous editors would potentially be of concern to the NYPD for a different reason: They were using their work computers for non-work activity.
“If this had been done at someone’s home computer, there wouldn’t be an issue,” Davis said in his statement to Capital. “The only issue here is that you’re not supposed to use a department computer for personal purposes, whether that’s shopping, whether that’s browsing, whether that’s going onto a Web site or whatever, you shouldn’t be doing that.”
In light of NYPD editing Wikipedia pages, re-upping this gem from the always-cyber-savvy NYPD's intelligence files. pic.twitter.com/Rz8U2DGR16
— Matt Apuzzo (@mattapuzzo) March 13, 2015
Many of the edits don’t pertain to major national controversies involving the NYPD. For instance, Capital found edits to the pages for the British band Chumbawamba, “UFC Fight Night: Brown vs. Silva,” actor Ralph Macchio and a handful of comic book characters. (The full list of NYPD-associated edits is here, for those who are interested in going deeper down this rabbit hole.)
But others directly pertained to cases involving the NYPD.
In the case of Bell, an individual accessing Wikipedia from an NYPD server even tried to petition for the deletion of the entire “Sean Bell shooting incident” article. Bell was killed in 2006, the day before his wedding, when five officers fired 50 bullets into his car. Bell was unarmed.
“He was in the news for about two months, and now no one except Al Sharpton cares anymore,” the anonymous user wrote. “The police shoot people every day, and times with a lot more than 50 bullets. This incident is more news than notable.”
Another edit, to the page describing the fatal 1999 police shooting of Amadou Bailo Diallo, changed “Officer Kenneth Boss had been previously involved in an incident where an unarmed man was shot, but remained working as a police officer” to “Officer Kenneth Boss had been previously involved in an incident where an armed man was shot.”
[This post has been updated to include a comment from the Wikimedia Foundation.]