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NYPD Keeps Mayor's Helicopter Use a Secret and it 'Makes No Sense:' Experts

By Murray Weiss | November 14, 2016 7:29am
 A NYPD Air Sea Rescue Helicopter flies over the Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday May 29th, 2013.
A NYPD Air Sea Rescue Helicopter flies over the Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday May 29th, 2013.
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DNAinfo/Theodore Parisienne

MANHATTAN — The NYPD has formally declined to provide any information about Mayor Bill de Blasio's use of helicopters, including the time a department chopper nearly crashed with the mayor aboard when it landed on Rikers Island or when the police flew him and his wife to a presidential debate on Long Island.

Brushing aside a Freedom of Information request by DNAinfo New York, the NYPD’s Legal Bureau claimed its FOIL Unit was “unable to locate responsive records" — although the department keeps meticulous logs on the NYPD Aviation Unit's daily use of its fleet of choppers.

NYPD lawyers went even further, asserting that, even if they could find the applicable records on when the mayor was aboard an NYPD chopper, the department would not turn them over, anyway.

“If such records existed, they would be exempt on the basis of Public Officers Law or Section 87(2)(e)(iv), as such information, if disclosed, would reveal non-routine techniques and procedures,” the NYPD claimed in a brief three-sentence response.

City and state experts on FOIL, however, say the NYPD is completely wrong — and officials “obviously” know where flight records are located, and turning them over would not disclose anything unusual about “techniques and procedures.”

“I look out my window every day and see NYPD helicopters,” said Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It is hardly a secret that they move people around, including the mayor, and there is hardly a New Yorker who has not seen one.”

“And for them to suggest that the applicable records don’t exist, is simply not credible,” he added. “And they would not be exempt. It is not even close, or a precedent-setting request."

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said the NYPD’s response “makes no sense.”

“There is no way the NYPD does not know what records you are seeking, and it is not incumbent on you to tell them where to find their own records,” he pointed out.

And he added that disclosing data on the the mayor’s use of the choppers — at a cost of at least $600 an hour, sources and NYPD officials say — has “nothing to do with a criminal investigation or non-routine techniques or procedures”

“It is not like the helicopters are invisible, and don’t say NYPD on the side,” he concluded.

DNAinfo New York filed the FOIL request Oct. 20 after reporting that the NYPD landed a chopper in Prospect Park — near the mayor’s home before he moved to Gracie Mansion and favorite restaurant and gym — and then flew him over rush-hour traffic to Long Island City to arrive in time for the opening of a new training center for an electrician’s union.

After the 8-mile trip, the mayor, who notoriously runs late to events, declined to say where he was before he took off from Prospect Park — sources say he was conducting political work tied to his re-election campaign — or how often he has used the police choppers.

"The NYPD makes the decision to use it in rare occasions, and using the same considerations and protocols involved with prior mayors’ transportation," said mayoral spokesman Eric Phillips.

On Sept. 1, sources and officials say, the mayor was on board an NYPD chopper when it had a hard landing on Rikers Island, where the mayor went to speak to correction officers about new security measures for the prison system.

The helicopter sustained damage to its undercarriage, and to propellers, and another chopper had to be called into to take de Blasio back to Manhattan, according to sources and officials.

In addition, de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, also traveled on an NYPD helicopter to a presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at Hofstra University.

Sources say the mayor's use of NYPD choppers increased “markedly” since Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced in August that he was leaving the nation’s largest police force for a private sector job, but they could not provide an amount.

Phillips added that de Blasio has said he only used the chopper "a handful of times," and "far less than prior mayors."