The New York Police Department (NYPD) is equipping unmarked vans with X-Ray technology, but keeping details of their usage under wraps.
The military-grade machinery has been mainly used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to identify drugs, explosives and human traffickers. New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton says they're needed to help protect New Yorkers against the threat of terrorism, but he has so far refused to clarify how they're used, how many such vans have been deployed, or to respond to concerns that they pose public health risks.
At a press conference earlier this month, New York's top cop would only say that their purpose “falls into the range of security and counter-terrorism activity that we engage in.”
“They're not used to scan people for weapons,” Bratton said.
The vehicles, known as Z Backscatter Vans, were developed shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and first utilized by the U.S. military to search for roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vans, which operate while moving or parked, work by emitting X-rays that penetrate through metal cars or concrete buildings to detect what's inside.
American Science & Engineering, the Billerica, MA-based manufacturer of the vans, says 780 of them have been sold to 135 “customers” (law enforcement agencies) in 65 countries. The cost of the vans range between $729,000 and $825,000, but it's unclear how many are currently used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and where they're deployed.
A spokeswoman for AS&E told The Crime Report she was unable to verify which other American police departments, if any, currently use the technology.
“Because of the context, it’s not something we can confirm or deny about whether any specific customers use [the vans],” said spokeswoman Dana Harris. “All I can really say is that the AS&E vehicles are used within their local and national protocols.”
ProPublica requested health tests and manuals on the NYPD's use of X-rays more than three years ago, but were turned away. After a reporter was denied access to this information, the news outlet filed suit against the NYPD seeking data about the effects of ionizing radiation emitted through such X-Ray devices and their possible link to cancer.
The trial court ruled that the NYPD did not prove how exposing data about X-Ray vans would hamper investigations going forward. In December of 2014, State Supreme Court Judge Doris Ling-Cohan ordered the NYPD to release the information.
“While this court is cognizant and sensitive to concerns about terrorism, being located less than a mile from the 9/11 site, and having seen firsthand the effects of terrorist destruction, nonetheless, the hallmark of our great nation is that it is a democracy, with a transparent government,” Ling-Cohan wrote in her decision.
The decision meant the NYPD would turn over policies, procedures, X-ray training manuals, the number of vans purchased, and information on the health and safety effects of the technology. New York City, however, fought back on appeal and has continued to cloak the X-Ray van information in secrecy.
Interest has only grown.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) on October 13 filed an amicus brief to request the appeals court uphold the earlier court ruling, requiring the NYPD to release the data.
NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose told The Crime Report her organization joined the case as a “friend-of-the-court” to argue for the importance of public access to exactly what these vans are doing to protect citizens.
“That’s the heart of the issue of this case,” she said. “These vans raise concerns about privacy and health and in order to answer those concerns we need to have more transparency.
“It's important that transparency is about accountability and democracy.”
Court arguments will be heard within the next few months but no date has been set, the NYCLU says.
X-Ray vans are only the latest contentious technology the NYPD has employed to fight crime. In 2012, the NYPD partnered with Microsoft to create the Domain Awareness System which is able to detect, examine and instantaneously display data from more than 3,000 surveillance cameras, number-plate readers and other sources which have the capability to delve into people’s private lives.
Privacy advocates believe the use of X-Ray vans are part of a trend to keep the public in the dark as law enforcement agencies grow more brazen in their efforts to collect personal data.
Shahid Buttar of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit digital civil liberties organization, considers these vans an indication of the trend in modern policing on both the local and national levels of eroding privacy in the name of security.
Buttar called X-Ray vans and other invasive policing tactics such as license plate readers and surveillance drones “constitutionally offensive for lacking any individual suspicion.”
“It's using technology to do what police are not legally able to,” he told The Crime Report. “The Fourth Amendment says you have to have a warrant. If the NYPD wants to use an X-Ray van they should go to a judge, and if they can't justify using the van then they shouldn't be using it in public.
“Just because they are the agency using it doesn't make it legal.”
The NYPD nonetheless believes transparency of X-Ray van activity would compromise the department’s counter-terrorism procedures, while putting the lives of innocent people at risk. Releasing the information about the vans' use to the public would “permit those seeking to evade detection to conform their conduct to the times, places and methods that avoid NYPD presence and are thus most likely to yield a successful attack,” Richard Daddario, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of counterterrorism, said at the time of the December 2014 court case.
Although Judge Ling-Cohan called the NYPD’s argument “mere speculation” and “patently insufficient” to overshadow the public’s right to knowledge of the X-Ray vans, the case has yet to produce results from those seeking information on how they operate and if they pose risks to privacy and the public's health.
Meanwhile, since the NYPD has refused to release the department’s rules and strategies, it’s still unclear how widely they're being utilized and whether police are routinely scanning people or buildings on city streets. Bratton appears confident that the department’s X-Ray vans are being used fairly and constitutionally, and he's undeterred by the NYCLU's recent court filing.
“The devices we have, the vehicles if you will, are all used lawfully and if the ACLU and others don't think that's the case, we'll see them in court — where they'll lose,” he said at the October 13 press conference.
Henrick Karoliszyn is a New York-based award-winning freelance journalist. A former staff writer at the New York Daily News and the New Orleans-Times Picayune, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fusion and Aeon Magazine. He was a contributor to the book, “Rolling Stone Cover to Cover: The First 40 Years.” He welcomes your comments.