The NYPD Refuses to Release Its Drone Documents, So I'm Suing

The NYPD's transparency office has determined, in response to three separate MuckRock requests, that any documentation regarding the NYPD's drone research does not exist or is otherwise beyond reach.

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Dec 2 2014, 11:00am

​Image: ​Bit Boy/Flickr

​In the last two years, two New York City police commissioners have frankly discussed the department's research into unmanned vehicles, confirming that the NYPD is indeed interested in the use of drones in law enforcement. But the department's transparency office has determined, i​n response to three separate MuckRock requests, that any documentation regarding the NYPD's drone research does not exist or is otherwise beyond reach.

So we're suing.

On November 19th, legal counsel representing ​Mu​ckRock filed a petition (embedded below) to force the NYPD to release documents related to its drone research and other activities, as outlined in New York's Freedom of Information Law.

In particular, our petition points out that the NYPD Freedom of Information staff failed to do more than parrot language from the New York public records law, and did not point to specific justification for withholding its drone documents.

"We were forced to resort to legal action because the NYPD is unwilling to tell the public how they are using drone technology," David B. Rankin of Rankin & Taylor, who is providing counsel to MuckRuck, said in an email. "Unfortunately, the NYPD is the most hostile of all New York City agencies to the public's long established right to know what its government is doing."

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for December 22, which comes on the heels of a number of public statements by the department's top brass regarding the NYPD's interest in unmanned aerial vehicles.

disclosing the requested documents would 'reveal non-routine investigative techniques or procedures'

In a public hearing of the Committee on Public Safety on May 20, the transcript for which you can download h​ere, New York City Council Member Corey Johnson posed many of the same questions about NYPD drone explorations that we've been trying to answer for more than a year.

Johnson put it plainly to NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.

"I was wondering if the NYPD is engaged in using UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] in New York City," he said.

"I know your predecessor, Commissioner Kelly, had said in Janu​ary of 2013 that he thought that the potential use of drones by the NYPD may be a good crime fighting strategy with new technology," Johnson added. "I wanted to understand where the NYPD currently is in its potential use of drones and if there's been any interaction with the Federal Aviation Administration on drone use."

Commissioner Bratton responded that he is "supportive of the concept of drones, not only for police, but the public safety in general," then deferred to Deputy Commissioner John Miller, who oversees the NYPD Intelligence Division & Counter-Terrorism Bureau.

Miller stated that the NYPD "have no drones, don't use any drones, haven't deployed any drones," but that the department has looked into "what's on the market and what's available, what are their capabilities and what would be the reasonable purposes."

Noting that drones might be combined with shotspotter technolo​gy to trace gun discharges, Miller said that "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."

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

The NYPD has been researching drones since at least 2010. According to emails first reported by G​ay City News in August 2011, an NYPD counterterrorism detective wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration in December 2010 to request information about drones.

And yet, in response to thr​ee sepa​rate requ​ests submitted under New York's Freedom of Information Law, the NYPD insists that it cannot release any documents whatsoever, including the above email.

In the latest rejection, NYPD Lt. Richard Mantellino claims that disclosing the requested documents would "reveal non-routine investigative techniques or procedures" and thus "enable miscreants to tailor their conduct in anticipation of law enforcement efforts."

In other words, Mantellino argues that by releasing records on the NYPD's research into drone usage—which top brass have suggested is still in very early stages—would allow criminals to preemptively develop methods to counter the NYPD's future drones.

Furthermore, Mantellino responded that any such disclosure "could endanger the life or safety of persons in New York City." And with that series of hypotheticals, Mantellino decided to reject the release of key documents with a clear public interest.

This dubious logic was upheld​ on appeal in late September, leaving us with no other recourse but to sue for the sake of transparency. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for December 22. 

Shawn Musgrave is the projects editor for MuckRock, a collaborative news site dedicated to making politics more transparent. MuckRock and Motherboard have partnered to produce The ​Drone Census, which aims to uncover drones used by domestic agencies. 

MuckRock's full complaint is below: