The New York Police Department (NYPD) is using vans equipped with X-ray scanners to secretly search vehicles, endangering New Yorkers’ constitutional liberties and possibly their health. And despite promises of transparency and a court order, the department is refusing to disclose even the most mundane details about the vans and how they are employed.
The NYPD owns a number of these Z Backscatter Vans, which were developed by Massachusetts-based American Science and Engineering (AS&E). The vans, which look like plain, white panel trucks, were first used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan to detect roadside and car bombs. As The New American reported in 2010, AS&E has since sold hundreds of the vans to various U.S. and foreign government agencies, including law-enforcement agencies such as the NYPD.
Three years ago, while investigating security equipment that exposes people to radiation, the nonprofit website ProPublica filed a request with the NYPD for “police reports, training materials, contracts and any health and safety tests on the vans under the state’s Freedom of Information Law,” according to the group’s Michael Grabell. ProPublica said it received responses to similar inquiries from other government agencies, but the NYPD stonewalled, refusing even to say how much taxpayer money it’s spending on the vans, which reportedly cost between $729,000 and $825,000 each.
ProPublica took the NYPD to court. There, then-NYPD deputy commissioner of counterterrorism Richard Daddario declared that releasing the requested documents “would hamper the department’s ability to conduct operations and endanger the lives of New Yorkers,” thereby admitting such documents existed, reported Grabell. The department’s court records, by contrast, indicated that “it did not have any records detailing its policies for privacy protections, how long images from the X-ray vans could be kept or who in the NYPD could view the images,” he penned.
The NYPD’s contradictory testimony did not help its case, and in January, New York State Supreme Court Judge Doris Ling-Cohan ruled in favor of ProPublica. Dismissing the NYPD’s arguments as “mere speculation” and “patently insufficient,” Ling-Cohan wrote, “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.”