from the fight-for-your-right-to-party dept
Never let it be said the NYPD doesn’t know how to have a good time. The question remains as to whether it’s possible for the NYPD to allow others to have a good time.
The NYPD has always been in the business of acquiring the latest in law enforcement tech. The arrival of easily affordable drones attracted the NYPD’s acquisition team, which began obtaining these eyes-in-the-sky more than a decade ago when they were still considered to be mostly a military plaything.
The acquisition of drones also attracted the eye of a local artist, who was arrested by the NYPD for satirizing its drone fleet with publicly posted “ads” that suggested the PD was getting into the drone strike business. The NYPD had drones. It did not, however, have a sense of humor. It engaged in a “weeks-long manhunt” for the artist behind the satirical posters that so offended the NYPD it decided it must be a criminal offense.
This criticism was shut down with the heaviest hand the NYPD could apply to the situation. The criticism (at least in this form) stopped. The NYPD’s acquisition and deployment of drones did not.
The NYPD is subject to some limitations on drone use by city law. The POST (Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology) Act requires the NYPD to inform the public about any new use of surveillance tech 90 days ahead of deployment. It did not do this… not in this case.
What it has said about its drones is that their use will be limited to the following situations, as noted by Sean Hollister for The Verge:
[W]hile the NYPD did publish a document about how it uses drones back in 2021, it suggested back then that drones would only be used for:
search and rescue operations, documentation of collisions and crimes scenes, evidence searches at large inaccessible scenes, hazardous material incidents, monitoring vehicular traffic and pedestrian congestion at large scale events, visual assistance at hostage/barricaded suspect situations, rooftop security, observations at shooting or large scale events, public safety, emergency, and other situations with the approval of the Chief of Department
Missing from this list? The thing the NYPD has decided its drones are going to do over the Labor Day weekend:
The New York City police department plans to pilot the unmanned aircrafts in response to complaints about large gatherings, including private events, over Labor Day weekend, officials announced Thursday.
“If a caller states there’s a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party,” Kaz Daughtry, the assistant NYPD Commissioner, said at a press conference.
While it could be argued (poorly, but argued nonetheless) that drone deployments might reduce wasted law enforcement resources by determining whether noise complaints are worth an in-person follow-up, the decision to convert a holiday weekend into a trial run for unfettered surveillance isn’t the sort of thing anyone (outside of the NYPD) is ever going to embrace.
You see, it’s not just about the parties. It’s about what can be seen and where it can be seen from. An officer at street level outside of a fenced yard can only see so much. A drone flying over enclosed yards can give officers a form of “plain view” they simply cannot achieve on their own. And since law enforcement believes anything its eyes (or its proxy eyes) can see is fair game when it comes to warrantless searches, flying drones over yards just because someone said a party is too loud is an abusive use of surveillance tech, which should be limited to the far more serious suspected criminal acts enumerated in the NYPD’s 2021 drone use document.
Considering the city’s size and population, one would expect the NYPD’s drones to be flying nonstop all weekend long. If the only justification for deployment is complaints about parties, the NYPD will have all the reason it needs to engage in extended, expansive surveillance of entire neighborhoods under the pretense of keeping the peace during a period of celebration.
Should the latent “threat” of people enjoying themselves a bit too much justify this kind of surveillance? The answer is obviously “no.” And a drone flight over a reported party can easily provide glimpses into neighboring property that has been the subject of zero complaints.
Then there’s the chilling effect. Is a Labor Day party protected by the First Amendment? Quite possibly. Not only is it an exercise of the right to freely associate, the perhaps-rowdy statements made by attendees are protected speech that should not be deterred by surveillance efforts seemingly completely divorced from anything resembling probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Sure, the city has an interest in ensuring neighboring residents aren’t subjected to excessive noise or intoxicated spillover, but those objectives can still be achieved without sending a camera into the curtilage without developing an articulable reason for doing so.