the panopticon

NYPD Doesn’t Want to Talk About Its X-ray Vans

Photo: American Science & Engineering, Inc.

The NYPD hasn’t (yet) equipped its officers with X-Ray Spex, but it does have mysterious X-ray vans, which they don’t want to talk much about. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was asked to comment on news of the NYCLU’s request to file an amicus brief to force more transparency on how the department uses this equipment, but declined to snitch on the program. “Those are issues I’d prefer not to divulge to the public at this time,” Bratton said. “I will not talk about anything at all about this — it falls into the range of security and counter-terrorism activity that we engage in.”

The vehicles, called Z Backscatter Vans, are primarily used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to search for drugs, explosives, and human trafficking. The “whole-body imager” technology is identical to machines that were installed in major airports several years ago. They were ultimately removed, owing to their reputation as “naked scanners.” Each of the vans reportedly costs between $729,000 and $825,000.

The primary concern is that not much is known about the NYPD’s internal policies on how to use this equipment. “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 ACLU and others don’t think that’s the case, we’ll see them in court — where they’ll lose.”

The website ProPublica filed a suit against the police department three years ago after an investigative journalist’s request for training materials and health tests related to the use of X-rays was denied.

When U.S. Customs began using the vans extensively in 2010, the agency prohibited their use on occupied vehicles and required that people get out before their car was X-rayed. “People should be informed if military grade X-ray vans are damaging their health with radiation or peering inside their homes or cars,” NYCLU executive director Donna Liberman said in a statement.

New York State Supreme Court Judge Doris Ling-Cohan ruled in favor of ProPublica in January, but the NYPD appealed and the information the website sought has been in legal limbo ever since.