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The NYPD Drone Czar Wants You to Know One Thing: ‘The Drones Are Great’

At a drones, robotics, and AI summit, the commanding officer said he wished the public felt more positively about the police department's tech-forward mission.

An NYPD drone flies in Manhattan.
(Hell Gate)

"'Oh, the drones can listen to us, the drones have facial recognition,' none of that's true," said Captain Michael Gulinello, commanding officer of the NYPD drone program. Gulinello was addressing a Midtown conference room full of technologists and entrepreneurs in leather sneakers and ill-fitting blazers. "We're gonna settle that right here. If anyone from the media is here, none of that's true."

Gulinello was the first keynote speaker for the third ffVC and GENIUS NY Drones and Robotics AI Summit on Wednesday, a day-long event that also featured panels on national security and the robotics industry, chats with founders and venture capitalists, and a fireside talk with Matt Fraser, the City's Chief Technology Officer.

Throughout his 30-minute speech, Gulinello talked about Mayor Adams's ardent support for the use of technology in policing. He also discussed when and how the NYPD uses its drones, with a few members of the fleet beside him as a visual aid: black contraptions of various sizes for the audience to gawk at as he shared recent anecdotes about drone deployment. Drones hovered above the New York City Marathon finish line in Central Park, which Gulinello said the department has never been able to monitor from a remote location before; they beamed video footage to police during a recent protest, providing "aerial situational awareness and support for boots on the ground;" drones even assisted in recent search and rescue efforts, like a building collapse or the search for a teenager in the East River, although, in both cases, Gulinello said the drones discovered dead bodies. "Drones are mostly used as a reactive tool," he said. "When a drone deploys, it deploys for a reason. Drones are not just out, flying around, going to people's backyards and looking for crime."

The last point was an obvious nod to critics who are less than enthused about the police department's drone program—particularly an announcement from the department before this Labor Day weekend and annual J'ouvert celebration, when assistant NYPD Commissioner Kaz Daughtry (originally billed as a speaker at Wednesday's drone, robotics and AI forum) said at a press conference that drones would be "responding to non-priority calls and priority calls…For example if we have any 311 calls on our non-emergency line, where if a caller states there is a large crowd, a large party in the backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up, go check on the party to make sure if the call is founded or not."

Those comments sparked immediate backlash from New Yorkers and privacy advocates, who said the plan violated the POST Act, a 2021 law that requires the NYPD to make the impact and use policies for its surveillance technologies public. Albert Cahn, the executive director for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told the Guardian that " there’s a real pattern with the NYPD and with Eric Adams…they use technology as a PR stunt, even when it means breaking the law."

"Drones have the same video capability as our 65,000 cameras that we have around the city. They don't have facial recognition, they don't have microphones," Gulinello said, noting that the drones have speakers to, say, warn swimmers about adverse water conditions, alert lifeguards of someone in distress, or play a pre-recorded message above protesters or parade attendees as a crowd control measure. "We take the privacy of New Yorkers very seriously, and we have measures in place to ensure that we're not violating any privacy laws." 

The NYPD does have a storied history of surveilling New Yorkers—the NYCLU pointed to technology like "face surveillance, x-ray vans, Stingrays, and ShotSpotter" as other tools in the police department's arsenal, publicized through the POST Act. In 2018, the NYPD settled a lawsuit stemming from a decade-long, post-9/11 surveillance operation on Muslim communities that "failed to produce a single intelligence lead."

A few hours later, during a break in programming, Gulinello and three other members of the drone team took one unit out for a brief spin on 50th Street. While a few summit attendees and passersby watched, the drone floated a dozen or so feet up in the air, tethered with a thin red cord to a black NYPD vehicle that serves as its power source. A screen in the back broadcast the footage that the drone was recording: a view of the street, with some of the drone's body in frame like a thumb over a camera lens. The team said while the drone could climb up to heights of 15 stories while attached to the vehicle, the Manhattan streets formed a wind tunnel that could end disastrously if they let it fly any higher. The team declined to answer any new questions about the drone program generally, although the captain stressed how seriously the NYPD takes privacy and said everything I'd need was already in his keynote speech. "I knew someone from the media was going to be here!" he laughed.

The keynote speech did end with a distinct message: "​​Someone asked me a question yesterday: 'If you had it your way, what would be your top priority going forward?' You would think I would say, 'Oh, I want the biggest, baddest drone that has the craziest things on it.' No," Gulinello said. "I want the positivity message to go out, that the drones are great. I feel that if we can get the positivity message out, to push it out in the media and show New Yorkers and show everyone out there how great these things are at accomplishing our public safety message, all the cool gadgets and toys will come. If we don't have the backing of positivity to show that, we're not going to get anything."

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