The New York City Police Department announced plans to fly surveillance drones over the city this Labor Day weekend to monitor outdoor parties or barbecues following complaints about large gatherings.
The decision was revealed during a security briefing addressing J’ouvert, an annual Caribbean festival marking the end of slavery in which thousands of people take to the streets of Brooklyn.
Assistant NYPD Commissioner Kaz Daughtry said at a press conference Thursday that the drones will respond to “non-priority and priority calls.”
“For example, if we have any 311 calls on our non-emergency line, where if a caller states there is a large crowd, a large party in the backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up, go check on the party, to make sure if the call is founded or not, and we’ll be able to determine how many resources we need to send to that location for this weekend,” Daughtry said. “We will have our drone team out there, starting tonight, all the way into Monday morning.”
The plan prompted criticism from privacy and civil liberties advocates who raised concerns about whether this use of drones violates existing laws on police surveillance.
“It’s a troubling announcement, and it flies in the face of the POST Act,” New York Civil Liberties Union privacy and technology strategist Daniel Schwarz said, referring to a 2020 city law requiring the NYPD to disclose its surveillance tactics. “Deploying drones in this way is a sci-fi-inspired scenario.”
New York City, like many other cities, has become increasingly reliant upon drones for policing practices. Data maintained by the city reveals that the police department has used drones 124 times so far this year, a significant jump from the four times they were used in the entirety of 2022.
Democrat Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, has said he would like the police to further embrace the “endless” potential of drones, pointing to Israel’s use of the technology as a blueprint after visiting the country last week.
Privacy advocates, however, warn that regulations have not kept up with technological advances, which they say could lead to intrusive surveillance that would be illegal if conducted by a human police officer.
“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,” Surveillance Technology Oversight Project executive director Albert Fox Cahn said.
A spokesperson for Adams shared a link to new guidelines making it easier for private drone operators to fly in the city. But the guidelines fail to address whether the police department has any policies for drone surveillance.
About 1,400 police departments across the country are using drones in some capacity, according to the American Civil Liberty Union. Federal rules, generally limit the unmanned aircrafts to flying within the operator’s line of sight, although many police departments have asked for exemptions. The ACLU anticipates that police departments’ use of drones is “poised to explode.”
Cahn said city officials should be more transparent with the public about how police are using drones, including clear boundaries to prevent future surveillance overreach.
“Clearly, flying a drone over a backyard barbecue is a step too far for many New Yorkers,” Cahn said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.