NYPD Confiscates Drone Belonging To Freelance Photojournalist Documenting NYC's Mass Burials

By now, many Americans have probably seen the photos of mass graves being dug at New York's Hart Island, a small island in the Bronx that has for more than a century served as a burial ground for NYC's unclaimed bodies. Over the past few weeks, the city has accelerated the burials taking place at the island from a pace of about 25 a week to more than 25 a day, as we reported a few weeks ago.

To be sure, not all of those bodies are victims of the coronavirus outbreak. But many of them are, and the story has acquired a kind of lurid fascination, making it an object of widespread interest among the public.

Perhaps it was this tremendous public response to certain photos, clearly taken with an aerial drone, that drew the interest of the NYPD. 

Because as the NY Post reported Sunday, the NYPD has seized the drone of a photojournalist documenting the mass burials on Hart Island amid the coronavirus crisis.

The photographer, a freelance photojournalist presumably intending to circulate the photos to media organizations, had an FAA license to fly the drone, but his property was confiscated, and he was given a misdemeanor summons for "avigation", an ancient city ordinance prohibiting flying anywhere that's not an airport (an ordinance that's clearly in conflict with federal regulations on drone piloting).

Aerial photographer George Steinmetz, who has an FAA license to fly a drone, had launched the $1,500 device from a City Island parking lot Wednesday morning to film the somber work on Hart Island when he was suddenly stopped.

Just minutes after he began, Steinmetz was confronted by a group of plainclothes NYPD officers who stepped out of an unmarked van. The cops confiscated the drone and issued him a misdemeanor summons for  “avigation,” an antiquated law prohibiting aircraft -  including drones - from taking off or landing anywhere in New York City that isn’t an airport, the report said.

A frustrated Steinmetz posted to his Instagram: "For over 150 years this island with no public access has been used to bury over a million souls who’s 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. #keepthememorycard."

When approached by Gothamist and asked why he felt compelled to document the burials on Hart Island, the photographer, whose name was George Steinmetz as noted in the above-quote, replied that: "these are human beings, and they're basically being treated like toxic waste."

The photos are a poignant reminder that during times of tremendous peril, the living sometimes don't prioritize the dead when they're trying to save others from suffering the same fate. And while that might be sad, that's simply the way it is.

However, the NYPD's decision to effectively censor this man's reporting seems not only arbitrary, but cruel: stealing a man's valuable property, property he may need to make a living, during a crisis where the focus should always be on saving lives and helping the needy.