The New York Police Department (NYPD) has urged federal policymakers to change a law it says could hinder the force’s ability to thwart a potential drone terror attack targeting the nation’s most populous city.
During a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing last week, an NYPD official told politicians that “jammers” capable of blocking and scrambling GPS receivers would benefit efforts to protect New York against threats posed by unmanned aerial vehicles.
“Federal law prohibits state and local governments from purchasing, owning, or operating technology that would jam any form of authorized radio communication and provides no pathway for state or local governments to apply to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for an exception from this prohibition,” explained John Miller, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism.
“The Department recommends amending Title 47 of the Federal Code to allow state and local governments to purchase jamming technology to use against unmanned aircraft systems in select circumstances with proper oversight.”
A terrorism bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in November introduced new technologies and tactics identified as possible threats. One DHS senior official revealed an “uptick in terrorist interest” in using weaponized drones within the United States and other Western countries.
Still, NYPD and other local police departments are explicitly prohibited from using the jamming technology that could be used to disrupt a drone’s flight path. Only federal agencies are eligible to receive FCC authorization to operate jammers, which can inadvertently interfere with cell phone service and block Wi-Fi connections for non-targeted devices operating on radio frequencies within range. Miller said NYPD is “eager to engage” with federal agencies on possible legislation to change that policy.
“Our job is to look forward … in terms of emerging threats that could affect an urban area like New York City,” Miller told reporters after the hearing concluded. “We are seeing terrorists overseas not only experiment, but execute, deadly operations using drones.”
According to WCBS 880 Radio, “Miller added that money must be spent to develop technology to take over a drone to disable it and land it. Legislation must be passed to give local law enforcement the right to do it.”
“We need to get those things done now before such an attack is attempted on U.S. soil,” Miller is quoted as saying.
The NYPD has received an average of $156 million annually in federal funding over the last five years. Much of that money has been allocated to strengthen the city’s preparedness against a possible terrorist attack. Grants support various operations, including a foreign linguist program, training vapor wake dogs, staffing counterterrorism and intelligence units, installing a network of chemical and radiological detectors, license plate readers, and training officers to prepare for ever-changing modes of attack, including by unmanned aerial devices.
It is illegal for the public to operate a drone in New York City’s five boroughs, excluding five designated parks. NYPD patrols the skies daily in search of unlawfully flown, remote-controlled quadcopters that terrorists could use to transport explosives, poisons, or toxins.
“It’s always in the back of our minds,” Lt. Richard Knoeller, a pilot with NYPD’s Aviation Unit, told CBS2 New York. “The NYPD would be ready for it.”
There have been approximately two dozen terrorist plots against New York City since the tragedy of September 11, 2001. NYPD maintains that authorities were able to derail most of those attempts. However, there have been four successful attacks in the last two years.
In September 2016, a bomb planted by an Afghanistan-born man exploded in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood injuring 30 people. A professed white supremacist murdered a black man with a sword last spring. Eight pedestrians were mowed down by a radical Islamist driving a rented pickup truck in October, followed by a December incident when an ISIS-inspired suicide bomber set off a homemade explosive in a transit center, injuring himself and three others.
“More than any other place in the world, New York remains in the crosshairs of terrorists,” Miller said. “We treat every day as if it is the day we’ll be attacked.”
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.