The New York City Police Department this week unveiled a fleet of 14 drones it says will help with a variety of uses, from hostage situations to search and rescue operations. But privacy advocates have concerns.
NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan says drones will allow police to do their job more effectively and that the technology will only be deployed in "specific instances," like the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square. New York is the largest city in the U.S. so far to turn to drones for police use, but not the first.
"It's definitely not going to be used for routine patrol. It's definitely not going to be used for traffic. It is never — and I say never, ever — going to be weaponized, so you're never going to hear of tear gas or anything else being on a drone. That is absolutely forbidden by our policy," Monahan tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "It's not going to be used for surveillance on individuals. This is going to be used to specific police functions."
In a statement, the New York Civil Liberties Union says the NYPD's policy leaves the door open to abuses of power:
"When the NYPD provided us with an early look at a draft policy that would govern the Department's deployment of drones, the NYCLU expressed serious concerns. The NYPD did make some changes, but we continue to believe the NYPD's drone program poses a serious threat to New Yorkers' privacy."
Drone video recordings will be stored for 30 days, Monahan (@NYPDChiefofDept) says, unless they become necessary for court proceedings or if they're requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
"It really is something that is going to enhance how we develop cases," he says.
On the types of situations when drones will be used
"It'll be various things that we allow them to do and it's a strict policy that we have. We can use them on search and rescue, evidence search at large and inaccessible locations. We can use it at hazmat locations, traffic and pedestrian monitoring at large events, such as Times Square New Year's Eve, which actually will be the first time that we will be utilizing the drones at one of these events.
"When we use it at Times Square at an event like that, it'll be on a tether, which is basically a cord that it's attached to and it'll be an area that's cleared out below the drone. So God forbid the drone falls, it falls into an area where there are no people, and we use that just to manage traffic and pedestrian flow within a large-scale incident.
"This is something that will help us do our job better. Obviously we've been doing our job for years, but this just makes our job better and it allows us a new way, new technology, to increase the safety of the city. That's the ultimate goal — there's technology out there that just makes us do our job better. There are 900 agencies across the country right now that are using drones. We took our time and really studied the usage and how they could help us do our job better to protect this city. We took a lot of input in before we decided to use drones. As a matter of fact, we sat down with the NYCLU, just to get their input. Though [they're] not completely thrilled with everything in our policies, we did feel it was necessary to talk with them before we implemented."
On what this technology won't be used for
"It's definitely not going to be used for routine patrol. It's definitely not going to be used for traffic. It is never — and I say never, ever — going to be weaponized, so you're never going to hear of tear gas or anything else being on a drone. That is absolutely forbidden by our policy. It's not going to be used for surveillance on individuals. This is going to be used to specific police functions.
" ... We had a shooting incident in the Bronx which covered a very large area, and we wanted to make sure we document the crime scene as best as we can. So we put the drone up late at night, and we were able to take pictures all along the route that can be fused together and really give a good view to any prosecutor who's going to be used in that case."
On who will be responsible for operating the drones
"In the department, there are only 29 pilots. To actually operate a drone, you have to be licensed by the FAA. So you have to go through a pretty extensive course to learn to utilize it and be licensed properly. So there are only 29 people, they're assigned to one unit, it's our Technical Assistance Response Unit, and they're only going to come out with the drones when they're called to an incident. They're not out there on routine patrol — a drone will never be utilized for routine patrol. ... It's strictly in our policy how and when we could use it, and there's always going to be a supervisor out on the scene. Every time that drone goes up in the air ... we have to get clearance through the FAA that we're putting it up in the air, and we will record every single time that we utilize that drone."
On where drones fit in the proliferation of cameras in cities like New York
"Listen, if you walk around in New York City, you're basically on camera anywhere you go. These are private cameras that are out on the street, these are traffic cameras, these are our cameras. Every company has a camera. When we're on patrol, cops are turning on body cameras. So the idea of people being on camera, it's just a reality in society nowadays."
This segment aired on December 7, 2018.