The drone fleet will be used for “searches and rescues, car crash investigations, crime scene documentation, evidence searches at hard-to-access locales, hazardous materials calls, monitoring crowds at large events, hostage and barricaded-suspect incidents, and other emergency situations” the NYPD chief approves.
But the unmanned aerial vehicles to be placed in the hands of the NYPD, are stoking serious concerns about unregulated surveillance among civil libertarians and progressives. The nation’s largest police department—sued in 2012 for illegally spying on New York City Muslims—attempted to quell down fears by insisting that the drones will not be used for unlawful surveillance.
“Let me be clear,” chief of department Terence Monahan told reporters, “NYPD drones will not be used for warrantless surveillances.”
But civil libertarians are not buying it.
“The NYPD’s drone policy places no meaningful restrictions on police deployment of drones in New York City and opens the door to the police department building a permanent archive of drone footage of political activity and intimate private behaviour visible only from the sky,” Christopher Dunn, New York Civil Liberties Union associate legal director, said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other anti-surveillance groups have long warned that drones could easily be, and have been, used by law enforcement to track activists—often those who are critical of City Hall and the police—and used for unintended or nefarious means.
“We believe the new policy falls far short of what is needed to balance the department’s legitimate law-enforcement needs against the privacy interests of New Yorkers,” Mr Dunn said.
The Legal Aid Society of New York also chimed in and stated that the drone fleet would only increase the NYPD’s “unregulated arsenal of surveillance tools.”
The privacy concerns brought forward are not unwarranted.
Since 2002, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division engaged in wide-sweeping religious profiling and warrantless surveillance of Muslims in New York City and to the neighbouring states of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and more.
The Intelligence Division targeted a whole range of Muslim individuals and entities with invasive surveillance: religious leaders, community organisers, mosques, student associations, businesses, nonprofit organisations, and other individuals.
Recently, in April 2017, several NYPD officers posed as Black Lives Matter activists to spy on them during the escalating anti-police brutality protests in 2014 and 2015, following the cop-involved killings of 18-year-old Michael Brown and 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
The undercover policemen were able to successfully obtain emails and text messages exchanged between organisers, once again sparking concerns over NYPD’s targeting and surveillance of activists and marginalised communities.