The nation’s largest police force has unveiled a fleet of drones that will be used in hostage situations and search and rescue operations, but a civil rights group worries the drones might be used to invade privacy.
The New York City Police Department said Tuesday the drones in its unmanned aircraft system program will be deployed in incidents involving hazardous spills and used to document crime scenes and collisions. They will also monitor pedestrians and traffic at large events.
The unmanned aerial vehicles will help the NYPD gather key information as situations unfold before officers arrive, lessening the danger to them, the agency said.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said the department’s drone policy isn’t restrictive enough to protect the privacy of New York residents. An NYPD commander said the agency is aware of the concerns about the drone program.
“So, let me be clear, NYPD drones will not be used for warrantless surveillances,” Chief of Department Terence Monahan told reporters. “NYPD drones will be used to save lives and enhance our response in emergency situations.”
The NYPD fleet of 14 drones is comprised of 11 small drones for tactical operations and two large weather-resistant drones with features that include thermal imaging capabilities, a powerful zoom camera and 3D mapping, the NYPD said. One drone can be used for training and testing.
“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,” NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill said in a news release.
Officers with the department’s Technical Assistance Response Unit have been trained to use the drones and will operate them, the NYPD said.
More than 900 police, fire and emergency units nationwide use drones in some form, the NYPD said.
State lawmakers around the country are weighing benefits of the technology, the economic impact and privacy concerns, among other issues, as they debate how and if the unmanned aircraft systems will be regulated, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Forty-one states have enacted laws concerning the unmanned aerial vehicles, including how law enforcement and the public are allowed to use them, among other issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three additional states have adopted resolutions.
In a statement, New York Civil Liberties Union Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn said, “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.”
The NYPD said the unmanned aerial vehicles are prohibited from being used for routine patrol or traffic enforcement.
NYPD officials said they met other police departments to learn about their programs and solicited feedback from the City Council and advocates.
The New York Civil Liberties Union confirmed the NYPD provided the organization with a draft policy, met with them about the drone program and responded to the organization’s comments.
“Police cameras in the skies of New York City offer a new frontier for both public safety and 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,” Dunn said in the statement.
CNN’s Rob Frehse contributed to this report.