One piece of long-stalled policing legislation that passed after George Floyd’s death was a New York City Council bill requiring more information about NYPD surveillance technology — including drones.
It was a nod to concerns by activists and civil liberties experts, some of whom also have pushed state legislation that would require search warrants and ban the "indiscriminate" use of police drones at protests.
The NYPD has used the devices at the 2019 Women’s March and Pride March. But during this year’s protests through June against police tactics it doesn’t appear to have done so, according to NYPD flight logs obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.
It was a different situation on Long Island this summer, where information on police drone use is still sorely lacking.
There were at least six June protests on Long Island in which Nassau County Police Department drones appear to have been present, according to an analysis of the flight records also obtained through a records request.
Long Islanders hoping for as much information as city residents get about public drones are out of luck. The NYPD has voiced operational concerns about the disclosure requirements, but even before the new legislation, the NYPD provided descriptions of why a drone was deployed. Suffolk’s police department did not respond to a records request, and Nassau sent a PDF covering May 26 to June 20, including start and end times and a latitude and longitude, but no description of why the drones were flown or what they did.
To scratch toward an answer about these pieces of public property, an analysis using social media posts, news reports, and interviews with protesters matched location data and flight times to recent Long Island social justice protests. The matching is an estimate — it is difficult to say exactly when a protest has "ended," and many records indicate flights toward the end of an event. And if a police drone was used over a car accident around the time and at the location of a protest, for example, the analysis would not have been able to differentiate. The NCPD declined to confirm the matches or answer questions about the deployment of drones. "For security reasons, the Nassau County Police Department is unable to provide further details with regard to deployment of our resources," spokesman Richard S. LeBrun said in a statement.
For six protests, the flight records appear to match up. That includes on June 6 in Merrick, where the log shows multiple flights launched near the Meadowbrook Parkway, which protesters tried to take.
On June 13, the drone log includes flights at a march’s end in Baldwin, as well as more flights in Roosevelt just off Centennial Park at the time that some protesters were returning.
There were matches at the sites of large events, like when thousands took to Sunrise Highway on June 4. Some appeared to be flying during smaller ones, as when small groups marched into the night in Mineola on June 1.
Why does it matter that police drones are flying over protests and that we know about it? Lack of disclosure breeds confusion — was that drone private or police? And though privacy is limited in public, in an age of technological tracking some protesters might be concerned about a flying camera. State Sen. Jessica Ramos, sponsor of the legislation putting limits on police drones, said that’s particularly true for immigrants here illegally.
"I think it has a chilling effect," said Jerome Greco, digital forensics supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, of the use of the law enforcement drones at protests. The idea of being surveilled or recorded "makes people less willing to go out and lawfully express their opinions."
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board. Additional research was conducted by Nicole Ki, an intern with nextLI, which is a research project of Newsday Opinion.