History Is Written By The Victors

Every professor tells her students that Wikipedia is not a viable source, which stops no student ever from first going to Wikipedia to learn about something. It’s not that it can be trusted, but that it is the digital keeper of our times.

No more so than when Capital New York revealed that certain pages had been edited by computers with IP addresses at 1 Police Plaza.

Computers operating on the New York Police Department’s computer network at its 1 Police Plaza headquarters have been used to alter Wikipedia pages containing details of alleged police brutality, a review by Capital has revealed.

Computer users identified by Capital as working on the NYPD headquarters’ network have edited and attempted to delete Wikipedia entries for several well-known victims of police altercations, including entries for Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo.

Three highly controversial cases, all involving allegations of brutality by the New York Police Department, have been changed.  By someone at the headquarters of the New York Police Department.

It’s not that the changes were outrageous.  As Daily News reporter Oren Yaniv told me yesterday, the changes were innocuous. Via Slate:

Here are some of the five changes Capital says an NYPD-affiliated IP address made to the page about Garner, who was killed in 2014 when officers detaining him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes put him in a chokehold (no officers were charged with crimes related to the incident):

“Garner raised both his arms in the air” was changed to “Garner flailed his arms about as he spoke.”

“[P]ush Garner’s face into the sidewalk” was changed to “push Garner’s head down into the sidewalk.”

Different, and maybe some would argue designed to change the tone if not the fact, but hardly significant.  And now that whoever did it has been caught, there is nothing to stop someone else, you, from going back into Wikipedia to change it back or modify it otherwise.  Or whoever knows how to use a computer at 1 PP to go back in and change it again.

Does it matter that the edits weren’t outrageous, and maybe even a bit more accurate than what was there before?  Does it matter that the NYPD is sneaking into the recorder of current history to tweak it?  Aren’t we doing the same, with people who believe that Eric Garner was murdered by Daniel Pantaleo making his Wikipedia page reflect their beliefs?

My initial reaction upon learning of the 1PP shenanigans was that it presented such a flagrant conflict of interest, such an obvious effort to rewrite history to reflect the police perspective, that it was irrelevant whether specific edits this time were benign or abusive. They shouldn’t do it.

But the lingering question remained, why are the cops not allowed their say in the writing of history?  Because we don’t trust them?  Hey, they don’t trust us either. Because they’re facially conflicted and biased?  And we’re utterly without bias and completely objective?

One argument that was well-grounded was that the edits shouldn’t come from 1 Police Plaza, if for no other reason than that’s a building built by the people of New York for the use of their police force.  When in there, when using its computers, when wearing its uniforms and carrying its shields, they’re on our time, our dime.  They shouldn’t be wasting it rewriting history, whether to cleanse it of their misconduct or, from their perspective, correct it.

But what if the same fingers that tapped out the edits did so from a computer on Staten Island, or Massapequa?  Would that be okay?  I couldn’t think of any reason it wouldn’t.  Are cops, sitting at home on their own time, any less allowed to put their two cents into history than, say, criminal defense lawyers?

Of course, some of the changes to Wikipedia were not quite so innocuous.

At one point a One Police Plaza user attempted to delete the entry for “Sean Bell shooting incident” altogether. The NYPD says it is investigating Capital’s findings.

Capital also found that One Police Plaza IP addresses had edited the page about British band Chumbawumba and edited a health-related page to add a reference to “gay man on man butt sex.”

Which just goes to show that whoever figured out how to turn on the computers at 1PP can be just as big a jerk as anyone else.  Yet, Capital New York figured it out, and the nature of crowdsourced history allows the next guy to undo the edits and return the Wikipedia page to its rightful place in our history.

There isn’t much dispute that the use of police computers and time on the clock shouldn’t properly be spent on cleansing Wikipedia of unpleasant police references or editing in a derogatory description of anal sex.  But these same people have just as much right in their individual capacity to frame history as it exists in their eyes, and serves their interests, as anyone else.

That’s why students shouldn’t cite to Wikipedia.  Then again, knowing what I do about the inherent bias of scholars, there really isn’t any source that is so pure as to stand above its author’s bias.

It’s not clear yet who the victor on the internet will be, as the battle is still being fought on pretty much every front. Indeed, there may never come a time when a Wikipedia page is finally complete, never to be edited again, and so unquestionably accurate that a professor will allow her students to cite to it.  It’s unclear how one would even know who the victor is, and so who gets the final say on history.  Maybe the last person who cares enough to edit the page?

But should there be a definitive history of such controversial matters as Eric Garner, Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo, as painful as it is for me to say, the perspective of police may well deserve to be in there.  As long as it’s noted as opinion and not fact.

23 thoughts on “History Is Written By The Victors

  1. Donny G.

    We have the perspective of the police. It’s available in their official statements, from the media, and from any cop on the street that discovers you don’t thank them right after Jesus in your evening prayers.
    Their perspective is “Anybody we hurt deserved it. And you know what else? Fuck you for questioning our actions. And even if a cop got a bit out of line, so what? Our job is SOOOOOO hard and SOOOOO dangerous.”
    They don’t need any more say in the writing of history, they already have more than their fair share.

    And I know who wins the internet in the end. It’s the people who actually know how it works. The kind of people who would know that if you edit a wikipedia entry about you, at work, without at minimum getting behind a proxy, someone will trace it back to you. That’s not the police, and thank goodness it never will be.

    1. SHG Post author

      They are evil. You are not. They don’t get to express their view. You do. Nothing hypocritical here, right?

  2. John Barleycorn

    Damn! What was I thinking?!

    There should be no stopping me now. Thanks, esteemed one! I finally realize all that is needed is a slight realignment and the insertion of a few police officers, with opinions, to a couple of the token board seats I have been awarding at great expense to the bottom line of my primary and secondary grades textbook empire.

    And to think, I was just about ready to hire two optimistic law school students that will graduate this spring to start infiltrating the back pages of /r/schoolboards on Reddit to fulfill their destiny of changing the world and paying their bills.

    I was going to have one masquerade as a visionary middle school vice principle who was wounded in the line of duty in the cafeteria while hunting down the students responsible for the content on a lost thumb drive and forced to take an early disability retirement. The other was to be cloaked as a stresses out grandmother who is certain her grandchildren will be ripped apart at the seams by the realignment of the social fabric.

    It would have been fun but you probably saved me a few hundred grand. Thanks man!

    P.S. Have you started sending out your rejection letters for pro bono work on Fridays lately or what? Your weekends have become almost giddy with menacing glee as of late.

  3. Pingback: Cops have free-speech rights too | Sean Callahan

  4. ExCop-LawStudent

    Judge Posner thinks Wikipedia is reliable. Below is the latest of the 44 opinions where he has cited to Wikipedia. Don’t be a curmudgeon, LOL.

    “Parole of federal convicts is granted (though nowadays only in a very limited class of cases, see United States Parole Commission, Wikipedia, [link to Wikipedia redacted] (visited Jan. 11, 2014, as was the other website cited in this opinion)). . .” United States v. Thompson, 777 F.3d 368 (7th Cir. 2015).

    Now I’m just waiting for Justice Thomas to cite it…

    1. Gavin


      This is a most unfortunate redaction of a link. Are you so brave to risk censure by telling us if the text-that-shall-not-be-shared was a better described general link to the wikipedia article, or a link to the state of that article at a particular date and time?

      In the former case, Posner is trusting the whole world not to make him look like an ass, in the second, he is just trusting himself and the Wikipedia Foundation, of the two, I know that one has let him down a number of times.

      1. ExCop-LawStudent

        It was a link to the article on the Parole Commission, which he indicated he visited on Jan. 11, 2014. On Wikipedia, the history of the article, including each change to the text, is retrievable, so you can show what it said at the time you cited it.

        Not that I believe that citing to Wikipedia is a good idea, I mainly just wanted to see Scott’s reaction…

        1. Gavin

          Aye. But you can link to a particular wikipedia article, or you can link to the article at a specific revision. I think when citing in a legal opinion, it would be best to link to the specific revision referred to, rather than leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out which revision on that “date” to refer to.

          This is particularly useful since there’s at least three ideas of date in play; the date at the location of the future viewer’s computer in who-knows-what-timezone, the date in the timezone used in the opinion (not specified, maybe CST?), and the date used by wikipedia for tracking edits (UTC). A single date spans at least fifty-one hours, but no one location has typically has single date for more than twenty-five hours.

          All in all, it seems more careful to leave it to the user to deduce the link to the current version than to expect the user to navigate carefully through that mess.

  5. delurking

    When I worked at the University of North Carolina, there was a framed sign mounted on the wall next to the telephone in my lab. I don’t remember the text word-for-word, but it basically said: “This telephone is to be used ONLY for work-related communications. If the telephone is used for personal work-related communications, the expense incurred shall be reimbursed to the University”. That second sentence refers to telephone calls to set up job interviews, etc. Your wife calling you to ask when you will be home was clearly a violation of the policy. There is justification for such a policy too, since the cost of installing the phone and paying for its existence was borne by the taxpayers of NC.

    I tell this story because it highlights the absurdity of focusing on the fact that the computers were at 1PP. In the overwhelming majority of workplaces, it is not against policy for your wife to call you on your work phone to find out when you will be home, nor is it against policy to do a little personal web-surfing while on a lunch or coffee break. Frankly, it is idiotic to have a policy against a small amount of private web-surfing, because the marginal cost of such web-surfing (or, as in the above example, telephone use) is so tiny as to be completely dwarfed by the benefits to office morale. So, unless someone can show that these people were charging the taxpayers while making their edits, the only issue is the one SHG focuses on, and he has it about right.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve noticed that most of your comments fall under the category of “I think X is stupid, so therefore X is stupid,” plus a moderately lengthy pedestrian personal anecdote that is meaningful to you if no one else. Is there any other personal story that you would like to share with the group?

      1. delurking

        Using google to search for my handle on your site, I find that on the first page of results none of my posts fit the category you say that most do. Perhaps if I went through all of them, a majority would turn out to do so, but that is very improbable given the early search results.

        I’ve noticed that sometimes you seem grumpy. Didn’t you find that particular policy amusing?

        1. SHG Post author

          It wouldn’t be my choice of policy in my workplace, but then, I’m not a public employer who is expected to have people on the public dole limit their time and use of equipment to public purposes. And even as a private employer, if the guy who pays you says no, then no is what the policy should be.

          1. delurking

            Maybe you are right. If I start a company, all non-working time will have to be spent outside. I wouldn’t want to be paying for a roof that is being taken advantage of for non-work purposes. No more eating lunch in your offices, you freeloaders!

            1. SHG Post author

              To each his own. That goes for you. That goes for others as well. Or do others not get to make their own decisions and you dictate for everyone?

  6. delurking

    Others are free to make their decisions and I am free to mock them as ridiculous.
    You weren’t so deferential of planet fitness’s decision about what the rules are in their locker rooms.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re really not doing yourself any favors by demonstrating an total inability to differentiate between apples and Chevys. And no, you’re not free to mock them as ridiculous when your rationale is fundamentally unsound. Or at least not here.

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