A drone shot of the New York skyline. Hart Island is located east of Manhatten at the western end of Long Island Sound.

George Steinmetz is a regular contributor for National Geographic and The New York Times. Over the span of his 30-plus-year career, he has received numerous accolades for his aerial photography work including three World Press Photo Awards. Steinmetz started out by piloting a foot-launched motorized paraglider to capture his aerial perspectives. These days he uses a drone.

This past Tuesday, while documenting a burial ditch located on Hart Island, due to the alarming number of COVID-19 fatalities in New York City, Steinmetz’ drone was confiscated by the New York Police Department (NYPD) and he was issued a Desk Appearance Ticket. He was cited for violating NYC Administrative Code § 10–126, which prohibits the takeoff and landing of drones within New York City (NYC).

A screenshot of Hart Island, captured in Apple Maps.

I’m not trying to be an advocate, but my encounter with the NYPD [on Tuesday] was not about any safety or privacy considerations that I assume the law was designed for. The officers who cited me were not local, and appeared to be working in conjunction with city employees involved with Hart Island interments. It was a clear example of a law being used for petty press intimidation. It doesn’t look good to see the city’s poor treated like toxic waste,’ Steinmetz tells DPReview.

Preparing for burials of what appear to be more COVID-19 victims this morning on Hart Island, New York City. For over 150 years this island with no public access has been used to bury over a million souls (whose) bodies were not claimed for private burial. With the morgues of NYC strained, the pace of burials on Hart Island has increased dramatically. I was cited by NYPD while taking this photo, and my drone was confiscated as evidence, for a court date tentatively scheduled for mid-August,’ reads the quote from Steinmetz’ official Instagram account.

The post, documenting the mass burial site, currently has over 30,000 likes and 813 comments as of publishing this article. It has also ignited an online debate over ethics in photojournalism and the need to overhaul existing drone laws in NYC. While some online commenters criticized Steinmetz for invading the privacy of those being buried, and others questioned the legality of his flight, many more are supportive of the image he was able to capture.

This one hits close to home – George Steinmetz does incredible work and this photo is important. I hope some photojournalist groups will step in to defend him. There is a rough NYC working group forming to revise the avigation law. But it got stalled with COVID from what I understand. NYPD is supposed to get first crack at the rewrite which was scheduled for May before this happened,’ states Scott Harrigan in a comment on the Commercial sUAS Remote Pilots Facebook Group.

When asked to elaborate, Harrigan shared the following information with DPReview:

‘As of today, NYC currently has the ‘avigation’ law still on the books. NYC has recently shown interest in overturning this law after an architect was tragically killed last December by falling debris from a facade that went un-inspected.

As a result, detailed in that article above, NYC council members outlined three goals:

1. That the 1948 avigation law would be revised to allow commercial drone use.
2. That a bill would be proposed requiring a facade inspection within 48 hours following any NYC 311 complaint of an unsafe facade
3. That a study would be performed determining the efficiency of using UAVs to inspect NYC owned buildings (performed by DOB)

An informal working group has been formed, to address this law – a coalition of local architects, real estate developers, drone pilots, and drone manufacturers. Mr. Steinmetz’ ticketing highlights how the avigation law is being used inconsistently by NYPD to penalize drone flights at the officer’s whim with no enforcement guidance, rather than in a standardized manner that takes into account public safety. This particular flight posed no threat to public safety, was conducted in compliance with existing federal UAV regulations and was an important act of newsgathering.

It is my hope that this event will spur NYC policymakers to create a consistent legal framework that allows drone operators to perform the many tasks that benefit the public, such as newsgathering, facade inspections, search and rescue, construction progress monitoring, etc.’

‘I could be misinformed but I don’t believe anyone flying a drone has actually been held to the 1940 statute. The prosecutor may not feel it is applicable. This is a reason to clarify and reform the provision so that there is actual accountability for things that matter in New York,’ adds Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs, followed on the same comment thread as Harrigan.

New York City Mayer, Bill de Blasio, has confirmed unclaimed COVID-019 victims are being buried on Hart Island, but not en masse, saying ‘everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity.’ Below is the first of a thread of tweets wherein he addresses the subject:

This isn’t the first time a drone has been used to capture images on Hart Island, which hosts numerous gravesites and is accessible by appointment. Melinda Hunt, who founded the Hart Island Project, which documents the information of those buried on the small island located Northeast of the Bronx, insists that the burials aren’t disrespectful.

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