New York police drone surveillance condemned

28th Dec 2018

Elham Asaad Buaras

News by the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) that it is to deploy a new fleet of drones has ignited major concerns about unregulated surveillance among civil right groups and Muslim advocacy groups.

On December 4 the NYPD announced the purchase of 14 drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras that can see through walls.

Since 2002, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division engaged in wide-sweeping religious profiling and warrantless surveillance of Muslims in New York City and to the neighbouring states of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey.

Announcing the deployment of the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) programme, NYPD Commissioner, James O’Neill, said the programme will enable “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.”

NYPD Chief Terence Monahan tried to assure the public the drones “will not be used for warrantless surveillance” insisting the UAS programme will be rolled out for reconstructing traffic crashes, mapping crime scenes, securing large events, and conducting search-and-rescue operations.

However, Muslim leaders who in April attained an out of court legal settlement of claims that the NYPD illegally spied on Muslims, remain suspicious and unconvinced by the Department’s reassurances.

The Legal Aid Society decried the programme as another step toward militarization, an addition to the Department’s “unregulated arsenal of surveillance tools” that already includes more surveillance cameras per block (in Manhattan) than any other US city.

The NYPD had attempted to preempt backlash by meeting with the New York Civil Liberties Union prior to announcing the programme, but the NYCLU released its own statement criticizing the cops for their failure to place any “meaningful restrictions” on drone use.

NYCLU 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 behaviour visible only from the sky.”

In January 2016, the NYPD was forced to agree to a series of operational reforms as part of a settlement of two lawsuits over illegal surveillance of Muslims following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Under the settlement reached on January 7, 2016, the NYPD agreed to strengthen safeguards against launching investigations and conducting surveillance against Muslims based on their faith.

The settlement was announced in Raza versus the City of New York, a lawsuit on behalf of three Muslims, two mosques, and a Muslim non-profit organisation, who alleged they were swept up in the NYPD’s dragnet surveillance of Muslims. In August 2016, the NYPD Inspector General found a pattern of systematic religious profiling by the NYPD, with 95 per cent of intelligence investigations targeting the Muslim community.

At the same time, the NYPD has failed to monitor white supremacist and right-wing extremist groups.

Council on American-Islamic Relations, New York division Legal Director, Albert Fox Cahn, said, “It’s wrong of the NYPD to take to the skies before tackling ground-level privacy concerns.”

Cahn added, “These drones will leave no corner of our lives private. The benefits of the drones are hazy, but the cost to New Yorkers’ privacy is crystal clear.

The NYPD has a history of targeting Muslim New Yorkers and ignoring the threat posed right-wing extremists and white supremacist. The NYPD shouldn’t be permitted to purchase these new tools until it shows it can use its existing tools without discriminating against marginalized communities.”

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