New York NY August 9 2023
Drone tech is really taking off at the NYPD.
The nation’s largest police department has spent tens of thousands of dollars on top-of-the-line tactical drones so far this year — and is exploring using the new technology to help cops answer 911 calls in the future, The Post has learned.
City records show the NYPD recently put in orders for a number of new aerial bots from Brinc Inc., a Seattle-based company that boasts plans of one day creating drones that will “quickly and effectively” respond to emergencies, even before law enforcement.
The purchase of the Lemur 2 quad-copters — devices equipped with thermal imaging and night vision and designed to serve as the first line of SWAT — is the latest investment in policing tech by Mayor Eric Adams’ administration.
The purchases — as well as a previously unreported multimillion-dollar investment by the NYPD into two social media tracking tools — is raising eyebrows among lawmakers and privacy advocates who say guardrails could be needed for the department’s new use of policing tech.
“I think those procurements are really concerning,” said Daniel Schwarz, senior privacy and tech strategist with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“It has a chilling effect on people, and we’ve seen that these tools were specifically used to monitor and surveil protest activities,” added Schwarz, noting his concern with the lack of transparency surrounding the use of such technology.
Adams, who recently loosened restrictions on drone use in the Big Apple, was mulling enlisting a mini-army of the aerial robots to combat the rise in crime last year, The Post reported at the time.
The NYPD pulled the trigger on some new copters this year, shelling out $87,747 on June 6 for Brinc’s Lemur 2 drones, according to city records.
Brinc CEO Blake Resnick told The Post the order was for fewer than 10 of the next-generation devices, which have also been used in Ukraine to scan bombed-out structures amid the ongoing war with Russia and in Turkey after the massive earthquake there earlier this year.
The NYPD also spent $108,000 in unspecified accessories and operational costs over the past few months, according to the records. And the department submitted a $95,000 receipt for drones and vehicles on July 11, though the record lacks any other details
The NYPD did not answer questions asking about the number of drones purchased, what they were equipped with and how they will be used.
“To safeguard our modern city in a forward-looking world, it is essential to explore ways technology can support the NYPD’s mission,” a police spokesperson said in a statement Sunday.
The department in 2018 started tapping the remote-controlled devices in hostage situations, crowd monitoring and other police business — but the use was sparse under former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Overall drone use by the NYPD has doubled over the first 15 months of the Adams administration, with cops dispatching the bots in crime-fighting or emergency situations 48 times between January 2022 and March 2023.
That’s compared to just 36 uses recorded in the last 15 months of de Blasio’s tenure.
The department also ramped up its training and testing of the copters, logging 132 flights in Adams’ first 15 months, compared to just 54 similar flights during the same time span at the end of de Blasio’s tenure.
As of last June, the NYPD had 19 drones in its fleet, according to an NYCLU report.
The force recently tested using speakers on drones on July 16 in what it said was a trial of the devices’ “remote-piloted public messaging capabilities,” but it was unclear if the Lemur 2 was used.
The top-of-the-line drones are designed to smash through windows and push open doors to make sure rooms are clear of dangers inside buildings before cops enter.
They can also create digital 3-D maps of buildings, provide real-time HD video with night vision and thermal scanners and be used by negotiators to communicate with a suspect.
Brinc touted its plans to use the copters as first responders as part of the Lemur 2 rollout, noting it intends to invest “in a safer tomorrow by developing a network of docked drone systems to respond to 911 calls quickly and effectively, moving response time from minutes or hours into seconds while providing the capabilities to enable a de-escalation-first approach to public safety.”
Resnick, 23, said his latest line is more suited for indoor use when cops are responding to hostage situations, active shooters or building collapses.
“The whole purpose of the drone is to get eyes and ears in dangerous places,” said Resnick, adding, “So if you don’t want to send a human being into a dangerous environment, you could send the drone instead.”
‘Drones as First Responders’
While more than 1,400 police departments across the country own drones, the use of the devices as first responders has been sparse.
The most well-known use has been in Chula Vista, CA, where cops have flown 14,000 drone flights to assess human response to emergency calls since 2018, according to the department.
But the practice, dubbed “Drones as First Responders,” appears to be gaining traction as new tech emerges — spurring a warning from the American Civil Liberties Union just last month.
“We’re very concerned that we may be moving toward a future where we find ourselves constantly scanning the skies, seeing drones overhead, and feeling like the eyes of law enforcement are always upon us,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, wrote in the 10-page report published on July 27.
Stanley acknowledged that the tech can serve as an invaluable resource in dangerous situations for cops, but warned of privacy issues and potential abuse as federal regulations lag compared to the advancement in the devices and their use.
It’s not clear if the NYPD has concrete plans to use drones to respond to 911 calls in the future, but Councilwoman Kamillah Hanks (D-Staten Island), chair of the public safety committee, confirmed that the department is exploring the option.
“The NYPD is currently exploring the enhanced use of drones to assist officers who respond to 911 calls, as well as to help provide notifications during public emergencies and immediate help to struggling swimmers at beaches,” Hanks told The Post.
“I will work with the Mayor’s office and the NYPD to make sure the technology is deployed responsibly.”
The NYPD has also invested heavily in the social media monitoring program, Dataminr — shelling out $4.3 million to the company over Adams’ 19 months in office, city records show.
That’s compared to the roughly $7 million total the NYPD paid the company in the five years prior to Adams taking office.
“The Department has used both unmanned aircraft systems and social media analysis tools for several years,” the NYPD spokesperson said in the statement Sunday.
The force was criticized in 2019 for using Dataminr to monitor activist social media accounts during Black Lives Matters protests.
The NYPD also signed a smaller deal, at just over $165,000, with ShadowDragon, a company that collects information on suspects by scanning websites.
“Bad guys also share too much online. Use that against them with publicly-available social media information,” the company’s website states.
Schwarz said one “big concern” of his was the lack of info on the companies’ accuracy in tracking and interpreting social media.
“Unfortunately, where they’re completely in the dark, I have not seen any independent auditing of those systems,” he said, adding, “that in an ideal world, we would have full transparency and could make a could have meaningful discussions about whether those tools have a place here in our government, with our law enforcement departments.”
“Taxpayer dollars spent on surveillance are better spent on fully funding housing plans and education, both proven to actually prevent crime,” she said.