Fourteen drones are now a part of the NYPD's Technical Assistance Response Unit [TARU], raising concerns about law enforcement spying and data collection on protesters. At a press conference in Fort Totten on Tuesday morning, top police officials dubbed the technology the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) program.

The NYPD says the drones will be used for search and rescue and inaccessible crime scenes—and not for routine patrols or "as a weapon." (A recent Fox TV drama featured a Chicago police district using drones to fight crime.) Drones will also be deployed at "large events," which could presumably include political demonstrations, which the NYPD has already made a practice of filming with hand-held cameras.

Only licensed members of the Technical Assistance Response Unit will be using the drones. In announcing the new drone program, the NYPD pointed to "more than 900 state and local police, fire and emergency units with UAVs" nationwide. "During the NYPD’s research and development stage, NYPD officials met with other police departments to learn about their programs. Additionally, the Department solicited feedback from City Council members and advocates."

The NYPD also sought feedback from the New York Civil Liberties Union, which remains concerned about potential abuses of privacy and departmental overreach. In a statement, Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU's associate legal director, said, "Police cameras in the skies of New York City offer a new frontier for both public safety and abuses of power. When the NYPD provided us with an early look at a draft policy that would govern the Department’s deployment of drones, the NYCLU expressed serious concerns. The NYPD did make some changes, but we continue to believe the NYPD’s drone program poses a serious threat to New Yorkers’ privacy."

Dunn added, "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. 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."

The NYCLU wants more specificity on how long data collected by drones will be retained and what kind of "emergency" circumstances would necessitate drones. Here's the letter the NYCLU sent to the NYPD on October 12th, 2018:

The NYPD has not yet responded to our question about how long drone data will be retained.

City Council Member Donovan Richards told the NY Times he wants legislation to protect citizens' privacy passed soon: "What we want to avoid is mission creep, where you start with the use of drones for traffic and before you know it, it’s being used for surveillance."

In Illinois, police are allowed to use drones without warrants only in emergency situations where "swift action is needed to prevent imminent harm to life." A bill that would have expanded drone usage to monitor large gatherings over 100 people did not pass earlier this year.