The NYPD has been using a secretive program for several years using unmarked vans with x-ray machines inside. They’re supposed to detect bombs. ProPublica spent three years attempting to determine what the program was about, but the NYPD refused. It took a judge to order the release of the records to learn anything.
The ruling follows a nearly three-year legal battle by ProPublica, which had requested police reports, training materials, contracts and any health and safety tests on the vans under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
ProPublica filed the request as part of its investigation into the proliferation of security equipment, including airport body scanners, that expose people to ionizing radiation, which can mutate DNA and increase the risk of cancer.
Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s law department, said Thursday that the NYPD would appeal “because disclosing this sensitive information would compromise public safety.”
The X-ray vans at issue are essentially a version of older airport body scanners mounted on a truck.
The X-ray vans—which reportedly cost between $729,000 and $825,000 each—are designed to find organic materials such as drugs and explosives. The rays penetrate the metal in a car or concrete in a building and scatter back to a detector, producing an image of what’s inside. The van can scan while driving alongside a row of shipping containers or while parked as cars pass by. Customs agencies around the world have used them to fight drug and human smuggling.
But most Federal Drug Administration regulations for medical X-rays do not apply to security equipment, leaving the decision of when and how to use the scanners up to law enforcement agencies such as the NYPD.
The NYPD’s policies are of particular interest because many agencies have adopted strict policies to address potential harm from backscatter X-ray scans. When Customs began using the vans extensively in 2010, the agency prohibited their use on occupied vehicles and required that people get out of the vehicles before they were X-rayed.
But because the NYPD has refused to release the department’s policies and procedures, it’s unclear how widely the vans are being used—if at all, whether they’re being used to scan people or even if police are deploying them for routine patrols on busy city streets.