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The NYPD Still Won't Explain Its Drone Plans

Police officials in New York won't stop talking about the potential benefits of flying drones over the city, but they aren't saying much.
June 9, 2014, 3:25pm
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton (red tie) at his promotion ceremony in February. Image: NYC Mayor's Office/Flickr

Police officials in New York won't stop talking about the potential benefits of flying drones over the city. But when it comes to releasing records of its actual drone plans, the NYPD's response has been a unilateral stonewalling.

At a city council committee meeting last month, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton confirmed once again that his department is exploring drones as an addition to their surveillance inventory. “Myself, I’m supportive of the concept of drones, not only for police but for public safety in general,” the New York Daily News quoted Bratton as saying. “It’s something that we actively keep looking at and stay aware of.”

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At the same meeting, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence John Miller, a former FBI spokesman and CBS reporter, told councilors, “You could see an application where a drone could be not only a very effective crime-fighting tool but could actually show you where the bad guys are going.”

But a series of records requests regarding drones and filed as part of the MuckRock/Motherboard Drone Census has only resulted in refusals by the NYPD Freedom of Information Law Unit.

The NYPD has been researching drones since at least 2010, according to emails first reported by Gay City News in August 2011. In December 2010, a detective from the NYPD Counterterrorism Division wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration to request assistance in tracking down experts and other police departments to talk to about unmanned reinforcements.

The 2010 NYPD email to FAA. Image courtesy Duncan Osborne/Gay City News

“Currently, we are in the basic stages of investigating the possible use of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] as a law enforcement tool,” the detective wrote to the FAA Unmanned Systems Integration Office in the email, which was obtained through a FOIA request.

In a January 2013 interview with Reuters, then-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly confirmed again that his cops were researching the issue, reportedly saying, “We’re looking into it. Anything that helps us.”

And on a March 2013 radio show, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg prophesied that drones would be in NYC soon, saying “you can’t keep the tides from coming in.”

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While it doesn’t break any ground, this latest very public announcement from New York’s top cop makes it that much more difficult for the NYPD to continue stonewalling records requests for its drone documents.

In a way, Bratton’s notice to the city council puts it ahead of departments that fail to let legislators know about their drone purchases. Police in Seattle, for instance, bought a drone in September 2010 without telling the city council or the public. When a public records lawsuit revealed the purchase in spring 2012, the public backlash led the mayor to shelve the drones, which were finally gifted to Los Angeles Police Department last month.

But this very public heads up stands in stark contrast to the NYPD’s heroic efforts to shield any documents about its drone explorations from release.

In February 2013, NYPD Lieutenant Richard Mantellino, a records access officer, insisted that he couldn’t release any drone documents. By his assessment, the "release of such documents would represent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

His response to MuckRock's request—ostensibly filed in the interest of personal privacy—failed to elaborate precisely how the release of documents would invade personal privacy. Typically this kind of response comes back on requests for arrest records or other documents that are actually personal, rather than for equipment logs, invoices or official policies.

Even if any of these documents contained officer names, these are easily redacted. But the NYPD decided at the time that it was best to withhold the whole batch.

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Mantellino denied a follow-up request submitted by MuckRock in October 2013. He wrote that the request was overly vague, even though it included more than a dozen bulleted categories of documents, just as the first request did.

Upon appeal in February 2014, NYPD Records Access Appeals Officer Jonathan David finally declined to release any documents, citing two reasons: First, he had denied a previous appeal for a similar request, so he contended that he wasn't required to even consider the merits of this latest one.

Second, he wrote, since drone documents might “disclose non-routine investigative techniques” or “the workings of a novel system that could be used to address emergencies, including possible terrorist attacks,” disclosing them “would enable miscreants to tailor their conduct in anticipation of law enforcement efforts to prevent these criminal activities.”

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When MuckRock pointed out that the first appeal denial was based on a postmark technicality that didn’t apply in this case, David refused to reconsider, for no other reason than that New York law doesn’t require him to do so. Because you can't appeal an appeal denial in New York, the only further recourse is a lawsuit.

Commissioner Bratton’s remarks to the city council undercut the NYPD’s claim that releasing any documents would “enable miscreants." If the NYPD's interest in drones is public enough to discuss at an open meeting, it’s public enough to warrant the release of documentation.

MuckRock and Motherboard have submitted a third records request to this effect, with the hope that as New York's police officials move closer to deploying drones, they also embrace the commitment to transparency Commissioner Bratton made upon taking office: To "do more to open up the organization, to make it more inclusive, to make our information more readily available to the public."