New information surfaced about what happened on the day that plainclothes NYPD officers emerged from an unmarked van to confiscate George Steinmetz’s DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone when he tried to document the mass burials on Hart Island in New York. We first reported on this story four days ago.
Steinmetz’s drone was confiscated by plainclothes NYPD officers
Very early on Wednesday morning, aerial photographer and Part 107 license holder George Steinmetz flew his DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone from the shores of City Island to fly about half a mile across the Long Island Sound to Hart Island to document the mass burials that were taking place there. Burials are reportedly about five times higher than usual on the island that is off-limits for the general public.
“These are humans, and they’re basically being treated like they’re toxic waste, like they’re radioactive,” Steinmetz told Gothamist, explaining the news value of the photos. “I think it’s important.”
Steinmetz said that a few minutes after he launched the DJI Mavic 2 Pro to document what was taking place on Hart Island, a group of plainclothes NYPD officers came out of an unmarked van. The officers asked him to bring the drone back. The officers tried to confiscate not only the drone but also the few photos he took as well as his smartphone. In the end they only took the drone and issued him a misdemeanor summons for ‘avigation’, Steinmetz said. The law from 1948 that Steinmetz allegedly broke prohibits aircraft, including drones, from taking off and landing anywhere in New York City that is not an airport.
Steinmetz reportedly said: “It makes sense to have a regulation like that for drones if you’re flying in Manhattan, where it’s not a safe environment. But I was taking off from the shore of City Island, over the water, to an unpopulated, deserted cemetery.”
Steinmetz is the second journalist whose drone was confiscated by the police, said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. Other pilots such as AP photographer John Minchillo were able to take a few photos last week without being stopped by the NYPD.
In a statement Osterreicher said: “While public safety is certainly part of any reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions imposed on traditionally First Amendment protected activities, we are very concerned that this antiquated ‘avigation’ law is being used in an arbitrary and capricious manner to chill newsgathering efforts to report on a matter of grave public concern, especially when the drone flight appear to be in compliance with current FAA airspace regulations.”
“I believe reporting on and images of mass burials anywhere in the U.S. is a newsworthy event but especially during the pandemic it is certainly a matter of public concern. The fact that those being buried are the city’s poorest residents only adds to the tragedy,” Osterreicher said, noting that news outlets also reported on Iran’s mass graves used to bury people who have died of the novel coronavirus. “It is truly unfortunate that we can use satellite imagery to report this type of news elsewhere but seek to penalize journalists for similar reporting in NYC using drones.”
In a statement, spokesperson, Jason Kersten from the Department of Correction, that manages Hart Island and the burials that are happening there, said:
“Out of respect to the families and friends of those buried on Hart Island, we have a longstanding policy of not permitting photography of an active burial site from Hart Island. It is disrespectful.”
Steinmetz said that he tried to photograph Hart Island from a helicopter on Tuesday but they weren’t allowed to fly low enough to take photos.
“We called the LaGuardia tower and we asked them for permission, and they wouldn’t less us go under 1,000 feet,” Steinmetz said. “To me, I start wondering if the word is out: ‘Hey, keep people out of Hart Island, because it makes us look bad.”
Hart Island might become open to the public next year as the City Council passed legislation to make the island part of the Parks Department’s jurisdiction as of July 1st, 2021.