NYPD will deploy drones to respond to 911 calls in 5 NYC precincts, officials say

The NYPD has plans to have drones respond to select 911 calls in five New York City police precincts — including Central Park, officials said at a hearing on Thursday.

The department will outfit precinct rooftops with drone platforms, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry said while testifying with other police officials at a federal hearing in Washington, D.C. on Thursday — including three in Brooklyn, one in the Bronx and one in Central Park.

Daughtry dubbed the pilot program “drones as first responders,” adding that drones would respond to “certain” 911 calls, though he did not specify for which emergency situations they might be used.

“Our most prolific technology-based innovation has been the department’s use of drones,” Daughtry said. He said the NYPD increased its drone use by 420% last year compared to 2022.

The NYPD did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the pilot program.

The NYPD has 85 drones in its fleet, according to Daughtry, though it was not clear if the new program would add to that total. Police did not say which precincts would first see the flying robots, but said officials chose them based on recent crime trends.

The department recently used some of those drones while responding to the region’s 4.8 magnitude earthquake in April to inspect the structural integrity of buildings and bridges, he said.

Police used drones to film and monitor pro-Palestinian protests in Times Square and Bay Ridge in the fall, then turned the footage over to prosecutors to use as evidence in criminal charges against 158 people, Daughtry said at a news conference last year.

They also used drones to measure crowd size at the J’Ouvert and the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn as well as the Electric Zoo festival on Randall’s Island, authorities said.

The decision to include Central Park in the pilot program comes after the department recently upped its presence in the park following a recent string of robberies.

Using drones as first responders helps keep officers safe, Daughtry said in his testimony, evoking a fatal police shooting last year in which police sent drones into the apartment of an armed man reported to be in mental distress.

Police officials will monitor the live footage from the NYPD’s Joint Operations Center at police headquarters in Lower Manhattan and feed information to officers on the scene, Daughtry said.

Daughtry also pledged to phase out drones made by Da Jiang Innovations, a Chinese company and top global drone manufacturer, from the NYPD’s fleet. Critics have sounded the alarm for years about DJI turning data over to the Chinese government.

Some civil liberties activists characterize the NYPD’s use of drones as a violation of privacy.

“This is a local police department that increasingly acts like a national intelligence agency,” Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, previously told Gothamist. “The idea that you can have a drone hovering over a protest, collecting the identities of every person there, without any oversight, without any protections? That’s unbelievably chilling.”

NYPD Detective Matthew Andrews-Sales, the NYPD’s head drone pilot, previously provided Gothamist with an exclusive demonstration of how drone cameras can zoom in on people and objects from the air, clearly showing details like someone’s face.

The NYPD has maintained that its drones are not equipped with facial recognition technology, but officials can run drone footage through the NYPD’s facial recognition database back at police headquarters, Daughtry said.

“We’re not looking for grandma’s secret recipe sauce that she’s putting on a grill. We’re not looking to see if you’re making hamburgers or hot dogs. We’re out there using drones to fight crime,” Daughtry told Gothamist last year.

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