NYPD Says ‘Trust Us’ on Potentially Dangerous X-Ray Vans Roaming the Streets of New York

The New York Police Department, apparently, believes it should have the power to see through walls and that New Yorkers should just blindly trust them not to abuse it.

In 2007, ABC News reporters Richard Esposito and Ted Gerstein wrote about the NYPD’s use of X-ray vans, or Z Backscatter Vans, to secretly see inside cars to protect President George W. Bush’s motorcade in 2004. While the U.S. military uses these vehicles to search for roadside bombs in Afghanistan, the department won’t say how it’s using the invasive technology on the streets of New York City today. But beyond the very real privacy questions the technology poses, there are also questions revolving around possible health risks to the public.

The technology, much like the now retired backscatter machines used by TSA at airport security checkpoints, uses x-ray radiation to do what no human eye can, like see through clothing. The kind of ionizing radiation used by the machines, notes ProPublica investigative journalist Michael Grabell, exposes unwitting bystanders “to ionizing radiation, which can mutate DNA and increase the risk of cancer.”

Despite these public privacy and health concerns, the NYPD doesn’t want those it protects and serves to know any details about the technology.

The department denied a Freedom of Information Law request by Grabell, who wanted information from the NYPD about any public health risks, the NYPD’s prior use of the vans, whether the department gets a warrant before it uses them, or how long the NYPD holds on to images the vans capture. The NYPD also won’t say how much the vans cost, though their reported price tag is steep — between $729,000 and $825,000 for each vehicle.

Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief urging the Appellate Division, First Department to uphold a lower court’s decision requiring the NYPD to release the information. When the NYCLU’s press release prompted reporters to question the NYPD’s policies surrounding the vans, Commissioner Bratton assured them everything was above board.

“They’re not used to scan people for weapons,” Bratton said. “The devices we have, the vehicles if you will, are all used lawfully and if the [NYCLU] and others don’t think that’s the case, we’ll see them in court — where they’ll lose. At this time and the nature of what’s going on in the world, that concern of theirs is unfounded.”

We’d like to believe that the NYPD is using X-ray vans lawfully. But the trouble is that we have no information about how they are used – whether it’s lawful, whether it has health risks, or how much it intrudes on our privacy. And the NYPD is refusing to share any of this information even after it was ordered to by a court.

And that's anything but democratic policing. 


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Health risks? I'm sure those matter, but I'm more concerned about them being able to see under my clothing.


Both are important. The problem with focusing solely on privacy is that law enforcement can always argue that privacy should take a back seat to safety concerns. That claim falls apart when they start exposing people to the risk of cancer.


Yeah, cause everybody is just itching to see under your clothes....drooling


These vans were sent to Venezuela under Chavez as a "gift" to combat drug smuggling. The vans were faulty then, (the vans never stopped emitting X-ray radiation, the lead boxes were faulty) and the operators had to all be taken for extensive testing to London. Those operators have been warned about health risks now and have been instructed to not be exposed to radiation again unless absolutely necessary, meaning they can't get routine X-rays. This technology *is* dangerous, and imagine if anyone had a health warning against having X-rays done. This technology would violate their right to refuse something that *would* endanger their health. The fact that they've brought these vans into NYC is behond alarming.


It's illegal search and seizure, with health consequences.....

I would think that any information gathered with this would be inadmissible in court.


Backscatters aren't retired at airports... I just a couple of weeks ago went through one at DIA. I saw one at Philadelphia, but did not have to go through it.


Most, as far as I've seen in my travels (I fly twice a week all over the US and Canada) have been replaced with millimeter wave scanners, which are not dangerous since they basically use RF, and don't show an actual picture of you. They just tell TSA screeners where to check on you using a nondescript outline of a human with highlights of areas of concern.


Bratton's bullying, above-the-law attitude is EXACTLY why the NYPD needs to open its files and come clean about "these devices" as he so eloquently puts it. Aside from the inherent 4th Amendment issues which must eventually be addressed after someone inevitably is arrested for illicit possession, which should immediately put a halt to the construction and purchase of these "death ray vans" (my vocab word, TM), is the cost/harm/effectiveness of what these things are supposed to do. At this point, I think many people view LEO's as kids with toys, and these aren't toys I'd let my kids play with, or anyone's kids play with around my own. What a joke.


I'd be interested to hear what Bratton thinks a lawful use of the vehicles might be.


I could have sworn the Supreme court already ruled these things illegal without a warrant. Ive read many cases in the past on what kind of evidence with these machines and even without can be used with out a warrant. To have to fight this again makes no sense.


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