The New York Police Department is taking to the skies with a drone program, much to the dismay of civil liberties groups who worry the force’s 14 new unmanned vehicles will be used to spy on New Yorkers with impunity.
The department claimed it does not plan to use the drones for “routine operations,” but the “acceptable uses” included in a press release – “collision and crime scene documentation,” “traffic and pedestrian monitoring at large events,” even “search and rescue” – are vague enough to allow for general surveillance. The drones will be operated by 29 specially-trained members of the NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit.
The Legal Aid Society decried the program as another step toward militarization, an addition to the department’s “unregulated arsenal of surveillance tools” that already includes more surveillance cameras per block (in Manhattan) than any other US city. The NYPD had attempted to preempt backlash by meeting with the New York Civil Liberties Union prior to announcing the program, but the NYCLU released its own statement criticizing the cops for their failure to place any “meaningful restrictions” on drone use. They also object to the permanent archiving of drone footage.
While the NYPD release lists “unacceptable uses” for which drones will not be deployed – “routine patrol,” “traffic enforcement,” and “search without a warrant” among them – that same release leaves the door wide open to breaking the rules. The list of “acceptable uses” for the new technology includes “other emergency situations with approval of Chief of Department.”
More than 900 US law enforcement units already use drones in their operations, and the NYPD consulted with representatives from other police departments while putting together its program.
“The NYPD must always be willing to leverage the benefits of new and always-improving technology,” said Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill.
The department claims their drones will “never [be] used as a weapon or equipped with a weapon,” and the models they have purchased are only capable of surveillance. Eleven of the new NYPD drones are small quadcopters to be used for “tactical operations” and standard surveillance. Two larger weather-resistant drones designated for “search and rescue” boast 30x zoom cameras, thermal imaging, and 3D mapping, and another model will be used “for training and testing purposes.”
Earlier this year, NYPD deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism John Miller raised the specter of terrorist attacks via drone, suggesting the department use Homeland Security grants to develop some sort of protection against the unmanned vehicles, which are currently illegal to fly in Manhattan and most other parts of the city.
The NYPD is the largest municipal police department in the US, with its own counter-terrorism department, outposts in London and Tel Aviv, and more manpower than some countries’ militaries.
The NYPD has been caught spying on unsuspecting New Yorkers before. In April, the department settled a lawsuit with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates, agreeing to dismantle the “demographics unit” that had spent years infiltrating and spying on Muslim student groups, mosques, and entire communities without evidence of wrongdoing. The NYPD also agreed to draw up new guidelines for intelligence gathering to be approved by the plaintiffs.
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