Law-enforcement agencies across the country have adopted aerial drones to map crime scenes, monitor large events and aid search-and-rescue operations. But the high-flying devices have also triggered backlash over fears they will be used to spy on law-abiding citizens.
The New York Police Department on Tuesday unveiled plans to deploy 14 of the unmanned fliers and to train 29 officers to operate them, opening an intense debate about whether an agency previously criticized for illegally surveilling citizens should possess such powerful technology.
Senior police officials said the drones would be used for monitoring giant crowds, investigating hazardous waste spills, handling hostage situations and reaching remote areas in crime scenes, among other tasks. They will not be used for routine police patrols, unlawful surveillance or to enforce traffic laws, the officials said. Nor will they be equipped with weapons.
“Drone technology will give our cops and their incident commanders an opportunity to see what they’re getting into before they go into harm’s way,” Chief of Department Terence A. Monahan said. “For this reason alone, it would be negligent for us not to use this technology.”
He added, “Let me be clear: N.Y.P.D. drones will not be used for warrantless surveillance.”
But lawyers specializing in civil liberty cases who reviewed the department’s proposed drone policy said it did not go far enough in preventing the police from misusing the devices. Advocates for police reform expressed alarm about the department’s growing surveillance capacity. Aside from drones, the police have thousands of cameras in public places, license plate readers and devices that can siphon information from cellphones by mimicking cellphone towers.
Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said police officials rejected recommendations that would have required the department to regularly disclose how often they use the drones and why.
The N.Y.P.D. will voluntarily report aggregate data regarding the drone program, said Devora Kaye, a department spokeswoman.
The department’s policy also allows the use of drones for any “public safety” reason the Chief of Department deems necessary. That leaves room for the police to use the drones however they want, with no public oversight, Mr. Dunn said.
“I understand why they want us to bless it, but we’re not going to bless it,” he said.
Other critics, including public defenders and elected officials, have also raised concerns the drones might be used to spy on black and Hispanic neighborhoods that have long been targets of aggressive policing practices. These detractors also have raised the possibility the video from the drones could also be exploited by the Trump administration to target immigrants.
Dan Gettinger, the co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, said privacy concerns are likely to grow as the technology becomes more widespread and the capabilities of the machines increase. More than 900 law enforcement agencies currently use them, he said.
“Drones are a very dynamic platform,” he said. “They’re one thing today, but the technology is going to evolve and sensors are going to become more sophisticated.”
The use of drones by police departments soared after the federal government eased licensing requirements in 2016. The Las Vegas police have used them to monitor New Year’s Eve festivities on The Strip, and the police in Cleveland have used them to pursue suspects.
But protests surfaced over their use in Los Angeles, and in Seattle, where public pressure forced the police to ground their drones in 2013.
The New York State Police have 18 drones, which troopers use for tasks like finding missing people and projecting flood depths. “It’s easier to use a drone than to launch one of our helicopters, and it’s less expensive,” Beau Duffy, a spokesman, said.
Police officials in New York City said they were considering using drones in 2014, and last year the department ordered three for testing. By June, the department had purchased 14. The program cost about $480,000.
Many police departments have started drone programs without the blessing of local authorities, purchasing the devices with federal funds, private donations or through loopholes in procurement processes. The New York Police Department, however, consulted with local elected leaders, among others, on a policy for using drones before they were deployed, officials said.