Imagine a small drone fluttering its way across the East River in New York City. Undetectable by radar, it's headed toward midtown Manhattan, and equipped with a destructive arsenal of weapons. Or a chemical agent. Or explosives. Or on a collision course with a jetliner. A hovering warcraft that can take out hundreds, if not thousands, of American citizens, controlled by a not-too-distant terrorist organization, and ready to unleash death from above on suspecting New Yorkers.
Sounds terrifying, right? According to top New York Police Department brass, this kind of nightmare scenario could be in Gotham's not-too-distant future.
Last week, CBS News reported that the largest municipal police force in the country is seriously considering weaponized drones as the newest security threat to terrorists' favorite target.
"We look at it as something that could be a terrorist's tool," NYPD Deputy Chief Salvatore DiPace told CBS. "We've seen some video where the drone was flying at different targets along the route and very accurately hitting the targets with the paintball."
The laundry list of deadly options, officials said, was clarified by two recent events. The first was a video in which a drone controlled by Germany's Pirate Party landed in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel during a press conference. The other freak incident happened this past September, when two commercial drones nearly collided with an NYPD helicopter at night over the George Washington Bridge (we later found out this was not really the case--the police helicopter pursued the drone, sparking the close encounter).
The possibility of carnage in both situations scared the shit out of the NYPD, and they think you should be scared, too. That's why the cops are working with counterterrorist organizations and the military to concoct some kind of anti-drone program to protect the skies of New York City from what may lie ahead.
"Myself, I'm supportive of the concept of drones, not only for police but for public safety in general," Commissioner William J. Bratton told the City Council in May. "It's something that we actively keep looking at and stay aware of." Intelligence chief John Miller later told reporters the NYPD is seeing "what's on the market, what's available" for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as they could provide assistance in spying on violent housing projects and detecting fires.
As of early October, FAA documents show that four police departments and ten sheriff's departments across the country have successfully applied for a certificate of authorization (COA), which an agency or entity needs to operate a drone. The NYPD was not one of them. However, those files extend only to late June of this year. An FAA spokesperson told me I needed to check with the NYPD to see if the department had joined the list since, but the NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Shawn Musgrave at Motherboard has made it his mission to find out if the NYPD is obtaining spy drones, but he hit a brick wall when his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was repeatedly denied. Among other technical reasons, the NYPD's Freedom of Information Law Unit told Musgrave that information could not "disclose nonroutine investigative techniques" or "the workings of a novel system that could be used to address emergencies, including possible terrorist attacks."
So the NYPD says drones represent the newest terrorist threat, and have also implied that their own secret drones could help to protect the city against "possible terrorist attacks." Does that mean New Yorkers face a looming drone war? Or is this just an endless, self-justifying struggle to surveil our sky?
"It's particularly funny to me because the NYPD wants to have it both ways," Mary Cummings, a professor who teaches classes on drones at Duke University, told me. "What concerns me is that the NYPD is pandering to media speculation that isn't really too logical."
The CBS report does not weigh in on whether what the cops are saying about drone threats is actually true. On the other hand, Cummings, a former Navy pilot, told me "it's always been possible" for a UAV to attack New York City since World War II. To her, the problem is a pesky little thing called physics.
The NYPD's DiPace told CBS the the police have "looked at some people that have jury-rigged these drones to carry guns, to carry different types of explosives if they wanted to; there's just so many possibilities that we're very worried about." The thing is, that suspected video, uploaded by FPSRussia, just so happened to be fake.
There's no way in hell, Cummings said, that a mini-drone bought off Amazon--like the two that flew over the George Washington Bridge last month--could carry a 100-pound machine gun, let alone explosives. And anything bigger would be noticed from miles away. "Big drones show up on radar, so you would need small drones to pull this off," she explained. "But you can't really weaponize small drones."
Besides, she said, if we're buying this story, these are shit-poor jihadists we're talking about here; they don't have the Pentagon's massive budget backing their every move. "You would need a very sophisticated research program to mount a lethal weapon on a drone," Cummings continued. "And to just aim and fire alone, in any kind of controlled fashion, is very beyond the skills of a homegrown terrorist. If some terrorists can do that, then New York City has a lot bigger problems."
Cummings said that she was "afraid that the NYPD is using scare tactics" to make people nervous about drones. She advocates for a thorough data management service, so we know where that drone camera footage is at all times, and for the State Legislature to ensure strict oversight.
To Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the main concern with a device "that parallels the militarization of police argument" seen after Ferguson is one of overreach. "One capability just leads to another," he said. What could start as a defense against terrorism could morph into any shape or form, including fighting drug cartels or child protection.
In other words, if the NYPD uses drones for one thing, what's to say they won't be used for another? And at that point, can we do anything to prevent our guardians of law and order from ratcheting up drone activity? One of the signature questions of post-9/11 American life looms: What qualifies as security-state overkill?
As a retired NYPD officer and Brooklyn prosecutor, O'Donnell sees the benefits of having drones on our side. "It's the nature of law enforcements to push the envelope," he told me. "Good law enforcement should be pushing the envelope," in order to be five steps ahead of a threat, albeit realistic or not. "It's this march to law enforcement trying to envision worst-case scenarios, and being ready to equip for that."
But to him, the regulatory apparatus Cummings suggests falls flat in this city's political sphere. The "City Council has shown that it cannot adequately oversee this sort of stuff," he explained. "Then it's left to the mayor and the courts, but what will they do? There would be no effective oversight, which is frightening."
The scariest truth in the end, O'Donnell explains, is that the decision lies on citizens. If NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's sweeping election on a platform of police reform last November is any indication, public opinion (probably) does shape what the NYPD will attempt on any given day. Given the last decade of American history, our tendency to cling to security in the face of imminent threats-real or unreal-is what will ultimately decide the drone war.
"It's a balancing act--even if it's overreaching, people want to know if there's a crisis or a situation," O'Donnell said, imitating a news report. "'A child's kidnapped!' 'Send up the drones!' Who's going to be against that?"
John Surico is a Queens-based freelance journalist. His reporting can be found in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.