The New York City Police Department says it won’t be carrying machine guns at protests, despite comments Commissioner Bill Bratton made recently. Speaking at a breakfast hosted by New York City’s Police Foundation Thursday, the commissioner unveiled a new unit–the Strategic Response Group or SRG–that will be made up of hundreds of officers tasked specifically with counterterrorism and “disorder” policing.
“They’ll be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not,” the commissioner said. “They’ll be equipped with all the extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns that are unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.” Bratton said the SRG “is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.”
The 2008 attacks in India and the January attacks in France left a combined total of 175 people dead and wounded hundreds of others. Months of almost entirely peaceful protests in New York City calling for police accountability tied up traffic. Two NYPD lieutenants were assaulted at a demonstration in December. One suffered a broken nose.
“In New York, dealing with terrorism, and large-scale disorder, and other so-called ‘black swan’ events involves similar skill sets,” Bratton said.
When asked if New Yorkers should expect to see police officers with “machine guns” at city protests, a spokesman for the NYPD told The Intercept, “No. They’re not carrying them at protests.” In general, however, the spokesman said officers would have access to the weapons “either on them or in their vehicles.”
The Intercept asked if the commissioner considered the terrorist attacks mentioned in his speech on par with the demonstrations in New York City–in terms of policing challenges and threats to public safety–and what specific, overlapping “skill sets” he was referring to. The department did not say.
The same question was put to the office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Marti Adams, first deputy press secretary for the mayor, told The Intercept, “The new unit and patrol model announced by Commissioner Bratton [Thursday] embody the innovative approach to policing that Commissioner Bratton is best known for.”
“At the outset of this administration, Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton committed to moving the NYPD in a new direction marked by more effective law enforcement strategies and a closer relationship between police and the communities that they serve, and the changes outlined by the Commissioner [Thursday] bring us closer to fulfilling that promise,” Adams added.
According to CBS New York, City Hall will help fund the new NYPD terrorism/protest unit, along with grants from the Department of Homeland Security. While de Blasio condemned the assault on the police officers in December, he has broadly supported the New York City demonstrations, saying they “provided an example to the world on how to protest.” Addressing the new unit at a press conference Friday, the mayor avoided the subject of protesters and machine guns.
“God forbid, there is an incident that has to be responded to, these officers–every single one of them will have specialized training. So, I think it’s going to be smart on that level,” de Blasio said. “I also think it’s going to take away one of the challenges that precinct commanders have had of having some of their men and women pulled off for special duty,” the mayor added. “We want to try and reduce that over time, meaning give them more stability in their staffing so they can focus on community policing.”
At its core, the SRG is an extension of the NYPD’s response to September 11th, which has seen off-duty patrol officers and officers with the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit assigned to guard high-profile buildings and protests duties. For the largest police department in the country–the NYPD employs more than 34,000 officers–the extra shifts can cost the city a ton of money, especially in the case of ongoing protests. They can also exacerbate the kind of tensions that currently exist between de Blasio’s office and the NYPD’s rank and file.
By standing up a unit specifically tasked with taking on counterterrorism and protest assignments, Bratton is attempting to cut down on overtime costs and avoid pulling cops off their normal assignments, says Scriven King, a blogger and security professional. Yet as time goes on, he points out, specialized units like the SRG can run into problems because there are only so many protests and very little terrorism.
Kings says that historically, these special details have suffered from “bad leadership, poor training, horrible attrition rates, and wasteful and unnecessary acquisitions.” He adds, “This unit’s day-to-function is still ambiguous,” noting that poor oversight may lead to abuse among its deployments.
The SRG’s unveiling was met with immediate pushback from groups in New York City’s activist and civil liberties community, many of whom pointed to a dangerous blurring of lines in a single unit responsible for both counterterrorism and the policing of lawful protests.
“Initial reports of Commissioner Bratton’s plans suggest the opposite of progress,” Priscilla Gonzalez, Organizing Director of Communities United for Police Reform, said in a statement. “His demands for less oversight of the NYPD and a more militarized police force that would use counter-terrorism tactics against protestors are deeply misguided and frankly offensive.”
Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and national advocacy director of the National Network for Arab American Communities, added, “At a time when police community tensions are high, how is this new response an attempt at de-escalation and rebuilding ties with communities who are directly impacted by discriminatory police practices and use of excessive force?”
The Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition (MACLC) and Jews Against Islamophobia Coalition (JAIC) said in a statement, “Just a week ago, Commissioner Bratton met with Muslim leaders from across the city in the wake of the Paris attack emphasizing the importance of police-community relations to keep our city safe. The Strategic Response Group will not achieve this goal.”
“The unmistakable impression is that peaceful protests seeking police accountability are somehow a threat to the city on par with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and Paris,” the groups said. “Equating civil protests with acts of terrorist violence is tone deaf and ill-advised. It is an invitation for police to violate the First Amendment rights of New Yorkers.”
Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images