Amid the backdrop of outdoor parties and barbecues that define the Labor Day weekend in New York City, an unexpected observer is poised to oversee the festivities.
The New York Police Department has revealed its intent to launch a pioneering initiative involving surveillance drones to address concerns stemming from substantial gatherings, including private events.
During a press briefing on Thursday, Assistant Commissioner Kaz Daughtry said, “If a caller states there’s a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party,” reported the Washington Times.
The unmanned aerial vehicles are set to take flight as part of a pilot program to tackle complaints about sizable congregations during the holiday weekend.
Prompting swift and vehement opposition, the strategy encountered immediate criticism from advocates championing privacy and civil liberties. They questioned the legality of employing drones for such purposes.
“It’s a disconcerting declaration, and it blatantly contradicts the POST [Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology] Act,” said Daniel Schwarz, a privacy and technology strategist at the New York Civil Liberties Union. The reference is to a city law enacted in 2020 mandating the NYPD’s disclosure of its surveillance methodologies.
“The utilization of drones in this manner resembles a scenario derived from science fiction,” Schwarz said.
Unveiled amid a security briefing on J’ouvert, an annual Caribbean festival commemorating the abolition of slavery, the announcement introduces a dynamic shift. This festive occasion draws throngs of celebrants and a substantial police presence to Brooklyn’s thoroughfares.
Daughtry’s revelation indicated that these unmanned aerial vehicles would be mobilized to address both “nonpriority and priority calls,” extending their reach beyond the confines of the parade route.
Emulating the trend witnessed in numerous urban centers, New York is progressively integrating drones into its law enforcement arsenal. Data curated by the metropolis demonstrates a steep ascent in drone deployment for public safety and challenging scenarios, tallying 124 instances this year alone — a significant rise compared to the mere four incidents recorded in 2022.
Examples of their deployment encompass diverse events, including their appearance following a parking garage collapse earlier in the year and during an event giveaway that spiraled into adolescent chaos.
Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, has articulated his desire for law enforcement to integrate the boundless capabilities of drones more deeply. Drawing inspiration from Israel’s adept use of the technology, a blueprint he gleaned during a recent visit to the country, Adams envisions an augmented role for drones within the police force.
However, in tandem with the rapid proliferation of this technology, proponents of privacy and civil liberties assert that the regulatory framework has struggled to maintain pace, consequently ushering in a potential avenue for invasive surveillance.
This scrutiny takes on heightened significance given that the surveillance, if executed by a human officer, would constitute an unlawful infringement.
“One of the biggest concerns with the rush to roll out new forms of aerial surveillance is how few protections we have against seeing these cameras aimed at our backyards or even our bedrooms,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
Upon receiving a request for commentary, a representative for Adams shared recently formulated directives facilitating the flight of private drone operators within the city’s airspace. However, these guidelines remain silent on whether the NYPD has instituted any protocols governing drone surveillance.
In a recent study, the ACLU reported that approximately 1,400 law enforcement agencies nationwide have incorporated drones into their operations to varying extents. Governed by federal regulations, their flight path is generally confined to the operator’s visual range, although numerous departments have sought exemptions from this rule.
The study foresaw an imminent surge in the prevalence of drones within police departments, a trend primed to increase substantially.
Cahn, the advocate for privacy, underscored the necessity for city officials to adopt a more transparent stance regarding law enforcement’s existing deployment of drones.
He advocated for a lucid framework that not only elucidates the present drone usage by the police but also establishes unequivocal boundaries to forestall any potential unlawful encroachment in the sphere of surveillance down the road.
“Clearly, flying a drone over a backyard barbecue is a step too far for many New Yorkers,” Cahn said.
Jim Thomas ✉
Jim Thomas is a writer based in Indiana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, a law degree from U.I.C. Law School, and has practiced law for more than 20 years.
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