Report: Police Surveillance Drones Could Soon Fly Over NYC

Will unmanned surveillance drones one day buzz the tops of skyscrapers and hover above crowds in the city that never sleeps?

Recent evidence suggest that yes, the New York Police Department could one day soon have aerial drones in its arsenal of crime fighting tools.

The evidence pointing to police deployment of drones is preliminary, but it is there.

According to WCBS-TV, an e-mail has been released through the Freedom of Information Act that’s  “purportedly from a detective in the NYPD counterterrorism division, asking the Federal Aviation Administration about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles as a law enforcement tool.”

WCBS-TV also cited an interview with NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in which he mentioned the NYPD’s ability to shoot down an aircraft, if that for some reason became necessary. It is more likely, however, that Commissioner Kelly was referring to the NYPD’s .50 Caliber rifles, which could theoretically bring down a small plane in the event of a terrorism emergency.

(photo courtesy LA Times)

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said, in response to questions about the NYPD’s possible deployment of drones, that “We’re always looking at technology. Drones aren’t that exotic anymore. Brookstone sells them. We’ve looked at them but haven’t tested or deployed any.”

Browne certainly has a point, as drones are becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous across the board.  High-resolution cameras on aerial drone platforms are not coming to a store near you– they are already there.

In fact, civilians have started to use drones for their own purposes, as was recently seen when a Texas man used a drone to catch a meatpacking company dumping blood in a river, and during major riots in Poland last November. As Polish police clashed with protestors, a radio-controlled surveillance drone was able to capture and transmit streaming video of the clashes.

Here is a video of the “Roboktoper” drone in action over the Polish protests:

Civilian police have generally deployed small, unmanned rotary-wing drones. The Department of Homeland Security, however, has begun to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border with the much larger MQ-9 Predator drones that have become synonymous with U.S. military action abroad.

This raises the possibility that law enforcement could one day have drones at their disposal with lethal capability for counter-terrorism purposes.

The mere prospect of police using drones to patrol New York City has some civil libertarians and privacy groups up in arms. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a 16-page report last month that WCBS claims cited:

“the growth of the use of drones and the lack of laws protecting citizens from airborne intrusions. Just the mere possibility that the city could be looking into the use of drone surveillance aircraft prompted one anonymous New Yorker to post official looking NYPD warning signs all over the city.”

Apparently, some of those public service notices read: “Attention, authorized drone strike zone.”

Another one found on Mercer Street said: “Local statutes enforced by drone.”

The signs would seem to be premature at this point, at least in New York City — but will they always be?