When thousands of New Yorkers poured into the city’s streets last summer following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, they were met with the very police violence they had come to protest.
In the days following Floyd’s death, and then again during protests last fall, New York police arrested hundreds of people, many with no probable cause. They pepper-sprayed protesters and struck them with batons, trapped them in the streets with no way out, pushed them to the ground, and shoved them with bikes. In Brooklyn, on May 30, an officer pulled down a man’s Covid-19 mask and pepper-sprayed him at close range, bragging about it to fellow officers but failing to provide the man with medical assistance, as required by police regulations. Days later, another officer in Brooklyn struck a protester in the back of his head while he was complying with orders to disperse, causing a gash that required 10 staples. And in the Bronx, on June 4, police in riot gear corralled hundreds of people before an 8 p.m. curfew, then beat and arrested them under the watch of the department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Chief of Department Terence Monahan.
Over multiple incidents, police regularly and unjustifiably used force against peaceful protesters, with state investigators finding that they beat people with blunt instruments at least 50 times, unlawfully pepper-sprayed them in at least 30 instances, and pushed or struck protesters at least 75 times. Officers targeted and retaliated against people engaging in constitutionally protected activity, New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office concluded, and “blatantly violated the rights of New Yorkers.”
Leading the violent crackdown was the New York Police Department’s Strategic Response Group, or SRG, a heavily militarized, rapid-response unit of several hundred officers. Since its founding in 2015 to deal with public disorder events and terrorist acts, civil rights advocates have objected to the deployment of the unit to protests, and then-NYPD chief of department and later Commissioner James O’Neill pledged at the time that the SRG would “not be involved in handling protests and demonstrations.”
The pledge turned out to be hollow. That same year, the SRG was deployed against Black Lives Matter protesters. Since then, the unit’s armor-clad officers and bike squads have become a regular presence at protests, where they stand out for their confrontational and aggressive tactics. After each confrontation, complaints about the unit streamed into the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent body tasked with reviewing allegations of police abuse. Investigators found a disproportionate number of SRG officers accused of wrongdoing to have exceeded their legal authority, when compared with the wider department. The group earned a reputation among activists as the NYPD’s “goon squad.”
Inside the SRG
Despite its visibility, little is publicly known about the SRG and how its specialized officers are trained to respond to protests. Even the frequently cited number of 700 SRG officers is an estimate; the NYPD will not confirm the unit’s headcount.
Now a series of internal documents obtained by The Intercept shed new light on the police unit behind some of the most brutal repression of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The Intercept is publishing three of the public records with this story, including the SRG’s guidelines and manuals for its field force operations and bike squads.
The documents offer a comprehensive overview of how the SRG operates. They outline the unit’s responsibilities during routine assignments to precincts across the city, to which its officers are dispatched in response to spikes in crime and during special mobilizations, including to protests. The documents provide instructions regarding “mass arrest” procedures, guidelines for officers equipped with Colt M4 rifles, and directions for plainclothes, “counter-surveillance” officers tasked with shadowing tactical teams in the field.
Marked as “law enforcement sensitive” and bearing destruction notices, the documents also detail a variety of formations and maneuvers for bike squads and teams of officers on foot and in vehicles. Some of the maneuvers described in detail are variations of what the NYPD refers to as “encirclement,” the police’s name for what demonstrators call “kettling,” a technique civil rights advocates have long denounced as leading to police abuses.
Over the last months, a series of scathing reports by independent agencies condemned the NYPD’s response to the protests. The reports, which underscored the department’s lack of preparedness and officers’ poor training, contributed to a narrative that has become frequent in the wake of police abuses: that officers would have better handled such situations with better training — and thus more resources.
“Training is the easiest thing for elected officials to call for every time there is a controversy around police violence. That has historically never worked to actually decrease police violence.”
That narrative is complicated by the internal documents reviewed by The Intercept. Many of the policies laid out in the documents were not followed last summer or during more recent police crackdowns on protests. But the documents also raise questions about the content of police training on protest response itself. While paying lip service to protesters’ constitutional rights, the documents do little to explain how those rights should be protected, offering instead page after page of instructions on how to circumvent them.
A spokesperson for the NYPD defended the SRG’s training, which he said includes a specialized SRG Academy as well as an annual, two-day course and eight monthly, two-hour unannounced drills. Members of the SRG Bicycle Squad participate in an annual two-day refresher course, he added. In August 2020 the department expanded training on the policing of protest to all members of the service.
“The NYPD protects the Constitutional right to peaceful protest, and works to ensure public safety for any New Yorker exercising their First Amendment rights,” the spokesperson, Sergeant Edward D. Riley, wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “Many different units of the NYPD respond to major events — including protests — to ensure the safety of the public at these events.”
The NYPD documents include several drawings of tactical maneuvers as well as photos taken during police training and real-life protests, including some featuring prominent activists like Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Jose LaSalle. Overall, the SRG materials reflect a heavy-handed approach to the policing of protest and echo the war-on-terror mentality on which the unit was premised, at one point referring to protesters as potential “hostile targets.”
Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of community organizations, argued that the problem with the NYPD’s response to the protests was not so much a matter of preparedness as of culture.
“Training is the easiest thing for elected officials to call for every time there is a controversy around police violence,” she said. “That has historically never worked to actually decrease police violence, or increase the firings of officers who violate people, or increase accountability.”
The NYPD documents, which detail a clear chain of command in protest situations, also underscore how top department leadership, rather than rogue cops, bears responsibility for police actions during the protests, including the decisions to “kettle” people and resort to mass arrests. The Civilian Complaint Review Board received more than 300 allegations of police abuse in connection to the protests, and dozens of New Yorkers offered hours of harrowing public testimony about police brutality.
The incidents are now at the heart of a series of federal lawsuits against the city, including one by the New York attorney general. Nearly 450 people have also indicated their plans to sue the city individually over their treatment at the hands of police, suits that are expected to cost taxpayers millions in settlements.
The lawsuits zero in on abuses by SRG officers. In one, attorneys seeking to represent hundreds of protesters accuse the city of “deploying one particularly problematic, inadequately trained, poorly supervised and disciplined group of NYPD members: the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group.”
“SRG officers are not only inadequately trained to respond to peaceful protests,” the attorney general’s office echoed in its own complaint, “but their training in terrorism response, which necessarily requires aggressive tactics and extreme force, is almost certain to result in constitutional violations when applied to peaceful protesters.”
Critics of systemic police abuses noted that in seeking reforms to police’s protest responses, the lawsuits risk the pitfalls of previous, similar efforts that followed high-profile crackdowns on dissent and led to little substantial change.
“There’s no justice in it, there’s no real improvement,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor and the author of “The End of Policing,” who was involved in some of those earlier efforts. “It’s really hard to say that things really got any better as a result of that. They just work around it, or they just ignore it.”
The “Goon Squad”
The SRG was conceived by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first NYPD commissioner, Bill Bratton, as an elite unit to deal with both “counterterror” and civil disorder. Originally approved in 2015 as a 350-officer unit, the SRG included teams in each borough and incorporated the Disorder Control Unit, or DCU, which had been central to aggressive crackdowns on mass protests in the past. The DCU had been instrumental in policing large events like Occupy Wall Street and protests surrounding the 2004 Republican National Convention, which resulted in massive numbers of arrests and alleged abuses. The crackdown on the 2004 protests led to record legal settlements, which observers say could be surpassed by suits surrounding last summer’s uprising.
Within a year of its founding, a controversial push to expand the NYPD’s head count by 1,300 officers ended up doubling the size of the SRG. Its budget quickly ballooned from $13 million to nearly $90 million. Equipped with state-of-the-art anti-riot gear and heavy weaponry, as well as its signature fleet of bicycles and combat armor-clad riders, the SRG, a voluntary unit, attracted cops looking for “more action,” many with lengthy misconduct records. Since 2015, SRG officers have met peaceful protests with violence, failed to intervene as far-right activists assaulted counterprotesters, and participated in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man.
“We have to understand this is part of the fabric of how the NYPD has historically treated protests and has historically treated Black, Latinx, and other communities of color.”
Despite initial reassurances to the contrary, the SRG ended up policing protests far more than it did any “counterterrorism” work — already the job of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau — but it brought its militarized mentality and tactics to the policing of civil unrest. The SRG engaged in what the unit’s guidelines refer to as “high visibility static deployment,” a show of force intended to “provide and enhance visibility at sensitive or other locations.” The unit dispatched officers donning military-style gas masks, ready for the “hazards of a weapons of mass destruction event” thanks to training in Chemical Ordinance, Biological and Radiological Awareness, or COBRA.
Organizers like Kang, of Communities United for Police Reform, opposed the formation of the SRG in its early days, not least because of the group’s conflation of protest with terrorism. That the SRG was quickly deployed to protests, despite assurances that it would not be, was to Kang emblematic of “the NYPD being able to unilaterally do whatever it wants, at any time that it wants.” Kang noted that the department faced no pushback from the administration over its broken promise and added that the City Council did not hold a hearing about the SRG until a public uproar over its role in the arrest of immigrant rights activist Ravi Ragbir by federal immigration agents in 2018.
Ultimately, Kang said, the SRG’s abuses reflected broader issues with the NYPD as a whole.
“The SRG is a symbol of the hyper-aggressive, militarized, unaccountable police violence in New York City, but that’s not exclusive to the SRG,” she said. “We have to understand this is part of the fabric of how the NYPD has historically treated protests and has historically treated Black, Latinx, and other communities of color.”
According to the NYPD documents, one of the SRG’s core missions is to “respond to citywide mobilizations, civil disorders and major events with highly trained personnel and specialized equipment to maintain public order.” The documents lay out procedures for dealing with emergencies, to which the SRG can respond by answering calls over citywide radio.
Unlike with emergency calls, the SRG often has advance notice and time to prepare for protests. As soon as a detail is approved, an SRG field intelligence officer begins compiling a package of information on the situation for distribution to the SRG executive staff and commanding officer. According to the SRG documents, the intelligence packets include information such as the group size, planned arrests, key members of the protest group, and the group’s hierarchy. Based on the intelligence, SRG executives make tactical decisions and supervisors debrief officers on the response plan, including the “past history of this event or others involving this location or organization.” Other SRG documents repeatedly refer to the unit’s reliance on intelligence and the monitoring of social media.
When the SRG arrives at a protest, it plays a supporting role in the NYPD ecosystem. SRG officers report to the local commander in charge, who has the authority to order arrests. Before such an order, according to the documents, SRG officers are instructed to follow directions and not to exercise discretion. They may make arrests unilaterally if they witness any felony or serious misdemeanor, such as vandalism, reckless endangerment, possession of a weapon, or assault. But the decision to engage in mass arrests of protesters for nonviolent behavior like unlawful assembly or “obstructing governmental administration,” the most frequent protest-related charges, rests squarely with department leadership.
As the NYPD’s premier riot breakers, SRG units come heavily equipped, ready to make a show of overwhelming force against demonstrators. When a show of force fails, the SRG has a catalog of formations designed to break up protests. According to the SRG documents, these range from the basics, such as the “Wedge Formation,” used to split a crowd in half, to the more advanced, such as the “Separation Formation,” used to get between two dueling factions of protesters and push them apart.
One of the maneuvers best known to protesters is the “Encirclement Formation,” which is used “when there is a need to take a group of people into custody,” according to the guidelines. Commonly known as “kettling,” the formation allows police to surround protesters, leaving them no means of escape. Encirclement formations can be as small as one squad of eight officers or as large an entire platoon of four squads. In either case, the move to encircle protesters indicates that the decision to arrest has already been made, the document notes, and that the targets have been chosen.
On paper, the SRG’s formations may seem well organized, but in practice, their execution is violent and chaotic.
On paper, the SRG’s formations may seem well organized, but in practice, their execution is violent and chaotic. At a September demonstration in Times Square, SRG officers encircled a group of people protesting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including several on bikes, before they had even started moving, a protester who took several videos of police that day told The Intercept.
“The moment the bikes lined up on the street, the NYPD just immediately rushed over, started grabbing people by their hair, like five or six officers per person, throwing people to the ground, arresting all the bicyclists,” he said. “The protest hadn’t even really started yet.”
The Bike Squad
The SRG takes considerable pride in its bike fleet and deploys it frequently to protests. Rather than tamping down disorder, the SRG’s interventions have sowed chaos amid largely peaceful demonstrations.
The training material repeats department lore about the founding of New York’s very first “Scorcher Squad” fleet of bicycle cops by Theodore Roosevelt when he was police commissioner in 1895. Today’s SRG bike squad is modeled after the Seattle Police Department, and some of the early SRG bicyclists received training in Washington.
The bike squad’s high maneuverability is perhaps the SRG’s most important tactical innovation and the only function of the SRG that is not redundant with previously existing NYPD units. The bike squad has the capability to speed ahead of protest marches, and the SRG documents instruct bike officers to report real-time protest intelligence back to command, such as overheard plans, identities of “aggressors” and “ringleaders,” presence of improvised weapons, and injuries. The bike units can also move ahead to flank protests, selectively blocking streets to dictate the path of an oncoming march.
NYPD training documents say that in close quarters, the bicycle represents a “force multiplier”: One cop on a bicycle can take the place of three officers with batons. In addition to bike versions of on-foot formations, the bike squad has its own moves, such as the “power slide” and the “dynamic dismount,” which consist of an officer lunging from a moving bicycle without breaking speed, taking down a suspect by surprise.
“Get bicycle up to a controlled rate of speed and aim for target. While in attack position, swing right leg over the rear of bicycle,” an SRG bike squad training module states, “After step through, place right foot on ground and dismount bicycle … make contact with subject and proceed with arrest or rescue.”
One of the unit’s highly visible tactics, the “Mobile Fence Line,” used to “gain ground and compliance,” employs SRG officers standing with their bikes across their chests, forming a line tire to tire. Shouting “MOVE BACK!,” the bicycle fence will advance aggressively over short distances. When a mobile fence line rakes across a protest area, it is because the police intend to make arrests, according to the SRG documents. One way this happens is with a maneuver called a BLAM.
In the “Bike Line Arrest Maneuver,” officers are instructed by the SRG documents to shout “BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!” as they advance. The documents outline the procedure for scooping people, right down to the “clinch” hold used to restrain them in emergency situations. “Clinch maneuver is control of subjects head by clinching your hands and arms behind the head of subject and bringing head against your chest,” the BLAM training module states, adding a warning: “DO NOT CHOKE HOLD, DO NOT BLOCK AIRWAY.”
During the June 4 incident in the Bronx, SRG officers used bicycles as weapons in what Human Rights Watch later described as a “planned assault” on protesters. In public testimony to the attorney general’s office, demonstrators described what happened when the SRG bike squad’s mobile fence line advanced: “The officer right in front of me gave a command, and they raised their bikes and rammed into me and all protesters in the front,” testified Sami Disu, an adjunct professor at John Jay College, adding that he was also pepper-sprayed during the incident.
Others described being squeezed by the advance. Another protester arrested that night, Christina Ellsberg, described how the SRG trapped a group of protesters: “They tightened their ranks and forced us together using their bikes and swinging batons until we were crushed and trampling each other,” Ellsberg said in the testimony. “At that point, panic set in. People were screaming, others struggling to breathe.”
Push for Accountability
As the SRG’s aggressive tactics against demonstrators came into stark display last summer, top city officials stood by the police. De Blasio repeatedly defended officers’ conduct, and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said, hours after police kettled and arrested dozens of protesters in the Bronx incident, that the action had been “a plan which was executed nearly flawlessly.”
Virtually everyone else condemned the police’s handling of the protests, with civil rights groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union and the public defenders of the Legal Aid Society denouncing police’s “indiscriminate brutalizing of peaceful protestors” throughout the demonstrations.
In their joint lawsuit, NYCLU and Legal Aid are seeking damages for a dozen people who were beaten, pepper-sprayed, shoved to the ground, and arrested during several incidents last summer. The lawyers also want the police to declare that police violated the First and Fourth amendments.
In another class-action lawsuit, attorneys are seeking damages on behalf of a potentially enormous group of plaintiffs, including “all people arrested between May 28 and June 6, as well as all people who have been or will be subjected to the NYPD’s practices of violently disrupting protests.”
And in its own lawsuit, the New York State Office of the Attorney General has called on the courts to install an independent federal monitor to oversee the NYPD’s policing tactics at future protests as well as a declaration that the tactics deployed last summer were unlawful. (A federal judge has temporarily combined these lawsuits.)
As his record on policing came under scrutiny during the protests more than at any time in his troubled tenure, de Blasio, in his last year in office, once again pledged reforms. “I’m reflecting on what happened in May and June, and I look back with remorse,” the mayor said last December.
“The SRG should be disbanded, yes. But that in itself won’t solve all the problems of what the SRG actually symbolizes.”
He and Shea pledged to accept the recommendations of the city’s Department of Investigation, which called for the NYPD to create a new protest response unit that does not report to the SRG and to “reevaluate the central role of the Strategic Response Group and Disorder Control Unit in response to large protests given their orientation to handle counterterrorism, riots, and other serious threats, and better calibrate their use to circumstances that require such specialized force.”
Others, like New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, have gone further. In a set of recommendations, Stringer, who is running for mayor, called for tactical police teams and heavily armed officers to be removed from protests altogether, replaced by a mostly civilian force tasked with managing the movement of people during large demonstrations. “The SRG Disorder Control Unit should be disbanded,” Stringer wrote.
Yet disbanding the SRG won’t do much if its role and tactics end up repurposed under a new unit, critics warn, citing the SRG’s roots in the DCU and the NYPD’s long history of shutting down controversial units only to resurface them with rebranded names. Because the department operates with virtually no transparency, the public and even elected officials sometimes don’t learn of internal changes or the shuffling of units and officers until months after these changes happened, said Kang.
“The SRG should be disbanded, yes,” she added. “But that in itself won’t solve all the problems of what the SRG actually symbolizes: the hyper-militarization, the hyper-aggressive policing tactics. That’s not an SRG problem only, that’s an NYPD problem.”