NEW YORK (AP) - On a cloudless spring day, the NYPD helicopter soars over the city, its sights set on the Statue of Liberty.
A dramatic close-up of Lady Liberty’s frozen gaze fills one of three flat-screen computer monitors mounted on a console. Hundreds of sightseers below are oblivious to the fact that a helicopter is peering down on them from a mile and a half away.
“They don’t even know we’re here,” said crew chief John Diaz, speaking into a headset over the din of the aircraft’s engine.
The helicopter’s unmarked paint job belies what’s inside: an arsenal of sophisticated surveillance and tracking equipment powerful enough to read license plates - or scan pedestrians’ faces - from high above the nation’s largest metropolis.
Police say the chopper’s sweeps of landmarks and other potential targets are invaluable in helping guard against another terrorist attack, providing a see-but-avoid-being-seen advantage against bad guys.
“It looks like just another helicopter in the sky,” said Assistant Police Chief Charles Kammerdener, who oversees the department’s aviation unit.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said that no other U.S. law-enforcement agency “has anything that comes close” to the surveillance chopper, which was designed by engineers at Bell Helicopter and computer technicians based on NYPD specifications.
The chopper is named simply “23” - for the number of police officers killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The $10 million helicopter is just part of the department’s efforts to adopt cutting-edge technology for its counterterrorism operations.
The NYPD also plans to spend tens of millions of dollars strengthening security in the lower Manhattan business district with a network of closed-circuit TV cameras and license-plate readers posted at bridges, tunnels and other entry points.
Police have also deployed hundreds of radiation monitors - some worn on belts like pagers, others mounted on cars and in helicopters - to detect dirty bombs.
Commissioner Kelly even envisions someday using futuristic “stationary airborne devices” similar to blimps to conduct reconnaissance and guard against chemical, biological and radiological threats.
Liberal privacy advocates are skeptical about the push for more surveillance, arguing that it reflects the NYPD’s evolution into ad hoc spy agency.
“From a privacy perspective, there’s always a concern that ‘New York’s Finest´ are spending millions of dollars to engage in peeping Tom activities,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Police insist that law-abiding New Yorkers have nothing to fear.