The New York Police Department (NYPD) has announced new plans to put drones into the air over the Big Apple, listing search and rescue missions and hostage situations as a couple of the intended applications.

With 14 newly acquired aircraft from Chinese drone giant DJI, the NYPD hopes to push into unmanned aviation to help protect and serve. According the department, the drones will be operated only by licensed police force members as a way of providing tactical support to all of its bureaus.

This could involve providing surveillance at mass protests, offering visuals for officers dealing with hostage scenarios or to document crime scenes. The NYPD also lists a number of unacceptable uses, which includes routine patrol, traffic enforcement, immobilizing vehicles or suspects, equipping the drones with weapons or conducting searches without a warrant.

This is far from the first time a US public safety agency has looked to use drones for its purposes. The NYPD itself points out that more than 900 different state and local police, fire and emergency units in the US have already acquired drones to help with their work.

But the high-density urban environment of New York City presents a unique case, and the move has raised privacy concerns among civil liberty groups. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) says the NYPD provided them with a draft policy ahead of the announcement, and they had a few problems with it. Some of these were addressed, while some of them were not.

"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 behavior visible only from the sky," says NYCLU associate legal director Christopher Dunn. "While we appreciate the NYPD's willingness to meet with us before it announced this program, we believe the new policy falls far short of what is needed to balance the department's legitimate law-enforcement needs against the privacy interests of New Yorkers."

For its part, the NYPD is careful with its language in the announcement, stating that the drones will only be used by licensed members of its Technical Assistance Response Unit who have undergone "vigorous training." It describes the technology as a tool it can deploy in "select circumstances," and notes that their use in one-off emergency situations will require approval from the Chief of Department.

"As the largest municipal police department in the United States, the NYPD must always be willing to leverage the benefits of new and always-improving technology," says Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill. "Our new UAS program is part of this evolution – it enables our 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."


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