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Twitter Mysteriously Removes Driving Record of the Unmarked Van Used in NYPD Arrest

Plainclothes cops from the NYPD warrant squad dragged a protestor into this van on Tuesday. Photo: @naptimehacker via Instagram

Twitter mysteriously removed tweets identifying the license plate of an unmarked police van that plainclothes cops used to drag and arrest a protester during a peaceful march in Manhattan on Tuesday.

The Twitter bot @HowsMyDrivingNY allows anyone to get a reply tweet with the New York City driving record of any vehicle. And on Tuesday night, after video of the violent arrest of protester Nikki Stone, 18, was posted to social media, the account blew up with dozens of people seeking information on the van's New York plate: JGB1864.

But for some reason, Twitter started temporarily deleting the responses revealing the van's record of recklessness on the road, which included nine speed camera violations and one camera-issued red light ticket in just 13 months — a driving record that would put the NYPD officer behind the wheel among the most reckless drivers in the city.

It is unclear why Twitter deleted the automated replies from HowsMyDrivingNY, which remained blocked until Wednesday afternoon. Reps for the tech giant did not respond to a request for comment, and NYPD did not respond when asked by Streetsblog if the agency asked Twitter to block information on its van, which is used by the warrant squad.

The creator behind HowsMyDriving, Brian Howald, says he’s in the dark about what’s happening to the missing tweets in this case — and in previous cases. He says all of the account’s reply tweets dating back to its 2018 inception have been removed, too.

“Everything looking not visible,” said Howald. "I have no idea, I haven't received any email notice from Twitter saying any unusual activity." 

In the current case of the police van, the shadowban — or blocking of tweets without notice — has removed most of the HowsMyDrivingNY's reply tweets that provide information about the plate's infractions. But some tweets are inexplicably still up, and no one knows why.

It's not the first time Twitter and the NYPD have created confusion. Last summer, Twitter suspended an account that tracks placard misuse by government officials after an apparent complaint from the NYPD, Streetsblog reported at the time. The complaint stemmed from a picture posted by the account @placardabuse to Twitter identifying an NYPD scofflaw by displaying the police department business card he had put in his windshield to avoid getting tickets for illegal parking. Twitter removed only that specific tweet from 2018, and suspended the account. The account holders, who remain anonymous because they have been threatened by the NYPD, said that the business card — and the information on it — was fair game because the cop had left it in the windshield for all to see.

The full record of the unmarked van since 2019.
The full record of the unmarked van since 2019.
The full record of the unmarked van since 2019.

“A publicly displayed NYPD business card used for illicit purposes shouldn’t result in us getting suspended,” the group said. (Twitter eventually agreed.)

Howald is unsure whether the two bans are related in any way, but hypothesized that maybe someone (cop adjacent) similarly flagged a tweet outing the NYPD van’s plate, and Twitter is temporarily suspending it, or simply the sheer number of tweets from unrecognized users in such a short time violated some type of agreement. (Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.)

“I don’t know what analogous complaint might be here. The video is in a public place, none of it is anyone's personal contact information,” Howald told Streetsblog. “Since (the ban) is account-wide it makes me believe it's a result of the number of posts, as opposed to specific tweets that were flagged."

But Howald says just about 150 unique users looked up the plate in question on both the HowsMyDriving’s website and on its Twitter account since Tuesday. The information is still readily available on the desktop version of the website, where anyone can plug in the plate number and get a full report (pictured, right).

Streetsblog has run the plates of more than 1,300 private cop cars through HowsMyDriving as part of its ongoing S-Cop-Law series and never experienced any issues similar to what is happening now.

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio said he was not happy with the manner in which the NYPD affected its arrest. The mayor defended the need of the warrant squad to arrest wanted suspects, but said doing so in the middle of a peaceful protest sent the wrong message about free speech.

"A lot of us have watched in pain what's been going on in Portland, Oregon, and the fact that you see federal agents, federal officers, federal troops, clearly doing inappropriate things meant to undermine our democratic process," he said. That's just thoroughly unacceptable. So, anything that even slightly suggests that is, to me, troubling and it's the kind of thing that we don't want to see in this city."

But it more than slightly suggests the Trumpist tactics being used by federal troops in Portland. Indeed, lawyer Gideon Oliver told Gothamist's Jake Offenhartz that the "only reasonable conclusion" one could draw from the timing of the arrest "is that police decided to do this to send a message to scare and chill protesters."

Update: After initial publication of this story, a spokesperson for Twitter said it "temporarily restricted the visibility" of HowsMyDriving's tweets "because the app used to create them violated our automation rules." The spokesperson could not elaborate on which rules the app violated, and said Twitter is looking into it to "ensure compliance with our rules."

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