NYPD unveils drone programme amid privacy concerns

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has revealed plans to deploy drones for a variety of operations across the city, raising some concerns over privacy and safety. 

(Credit: NYPD)

A total of 14 UAVs from Chinese drone manufacturer DJI will be operated by the force’s Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU). According to the NYPD, this unit provides specialised investigative equipment and tactical support to all bureaus within the police department, from officers on patrol to the Emergency Service Unit (ESU). The majority of the drones will be small DJI Mavic Pro quadcopters, capable of rapid deployment. Two larger DJI M210 RTK quadcopters – equipped with 30x zoom cameras, thermal imaging and 3D mapping capabilities – will be used selectively for more demanding missions.

“As the largest municipal police department in the United States, the NYPD must always be willing to leverage the benefits of new and always-improving technology,” said NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill. “Our new UAS program is part of this evolution – it enables our highly-trained cops to be even more responsive to the people we serve, and to carry out the NYPD’s critical work in ways that are more effective, efficient, and safe for everyone.”

While more than 900 police and emergency services departments across the US are already using drones, New York’s high-density population and towering Manhattan skyline make the city a unique prospect for UAV operations. In a statement, the NYPD outlined its acceptable use cases for drones, including search & rescue, crime scene analysis, traffic monitoring and hostage scenarios. Situations where UAVs would not be deployed include routine patrol, traffic enforcement, illegal surveillance and disarming/disabling a vehicle or suspect. Nonetheless, the programme’s launch has faced a backlash from some New Yorkers, with the city’s civil liberties union (NYCLU) demanding far stricter parameters for drone use.

“Police cameras in the skies of New York City offer a new frontier for both public safety and abuses of power,” said the NYCLU associate legal director Christopher Dunn.

“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.”