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NYPD to deploy drone fleet, stoking fears of Big Brother

"The NYPD's drone policy places no meaningful restrictions on police deployment of drones in New York City," the New York Civil Liberties Union said.
Image: NYPD Drone
NYPD DroneNBC New York

The nation's largest police department on Tuesday announced that it will soon deploy a newly acquired fleet of 14 drones to assist with emergencies.

And New York police officials went out of their way to assure civil libertarians that the unmanned aerial vehicles would not be used to peer into the lives of everyday New Yorkers.

"Let me be clear," Chief of Department Terence Monahan told reporters, "NYPD drones will not be used for warrantless surveillances."

The department said in a statement the devices would 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" so long as the chief of department approves.

Police officials Tuesday demonstrated how drones would be used to fly over three situations: a hazardous materials spill, a vehicle collision and a missing person's case.

But civil libertarians and other department critics weren't impressed.

They've long argued that drones in the hands of law enforcement can easily be used to track innocents, especially those who speak out against City Hall and police.

"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 behavior visible only from the sky," New York Civil Liberties Union associate legal director Christopher Dunn said in a statement.

Despite being given the opportunity to provide the NYPD with feedback on its drone program, "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," Dunn said.

In a statement, New York's Legal Aid Society said the drones would only add to the NYPD's "unregulated arsenal of surveillance tools."

"The Department has a history of using powerful technology to unfairly target our clients and communities of color," the statement reads. "Its continued unrestrained expansion will only further sow distrust and increase unequal treatment of our clients. This is a dangerous step towards the further militarization of the NYPD."

Monahan argued that officer safety would be so well served by drones that "it would be negligent for us not to utilize this technology."

"Drone technology will give our cops and their incident commanders an opportunity to see what they are getting into before they go into harm’s way," he said.

Last year the Los Angeles Police Commission approved a pilot program for drone testing by the city's police, but the devices have not yet been deployed as a result of "funding issues," said Officer Tony Im.

More than 900 U.S. public safety agencies, including police and fire departments, use drones