An NYPD Unit Armed to Face Terrorists–and Protesters

The militarization of police intensifies in New York City.

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton intends to create a new unit of police officers specially trained to use heavy weaponry. They'll be equipped with "extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns," he said during a Thursday press conference. As a critic of militarized police forces, I must acknowledge that New York City and Washington, D.C., by virtue of their status as prime terrorist targets, can justify counterterrorism training and weaponry that would be absurd elsewhere, which isn't to say that this heavily armed, 350-person squad is a no-brainer. It isn't as if such a unit would've stopped the attacks in Boston or 9/11 or Oklahoma City—or the terrorist attack in Paris, or the ones some years ago in Madrid or London.

The benefit to such a squad is its ability to respond to an attack like the ones in Mumbai or Nairobi, where heavily armed gunmen seize a building with many hostages. The cost is the danger that the militarized unit will be turned on U.S. citizens.

Alas, that worst-case scenario seems to be Bratton's plan. The unit, dubbed a Strategic Response Group, is "designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris,” Bratton declared, giving no sign of recognizing that one of those things is unlike the others.

The NYPD has a history of violently suppressing protests.

An investigation undertaken by law clinics at NYU, Fordham, Harvard, and Stanford concluded, after eight months of study, that the NYPD abused Occupy Wall Street protesters and violated their rights on numerous occasions during the 2011 protests that radiated out from Zuccotti Park. Their report is titled Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street.

In a 2012 article, I noted 14 specific allegations of abuse.

Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union declared victory in its lengthy attempt to seek redress for some of the NYPD abuses perpetrated during protests in 2004: "New York City has agreed to pay nearly $18 million for the arrest, detention and fingerprinting of hundreds of protesters, journalists, legal observers and bystanders during the 2004 Republican National Convention – the largest protest settlement in history. The NYCLU filed the first cases following the Convention and has been central to the legal challenge to the NYPD’s actions."

When the unit trained to fight terrorists with heavy weapons is sent to face unarmed New Yorkers exercising their right to free assembly, hopefully they'll wield their machine guns more responsibly than Anthony Balonga did his pepper spray:

Other changes announced by Bratton are more promising:

Under a plan created by chief of department James O’Neill, the NYPD will cut the number of officers assigned to specialty roles, and increase the number of officers on patrol in local precincts. “We’ll assign them to steady sectors," Bratton said. "Having more patrol officers and sector cars lessens the tyranny of the radio and allows time for new, creative types of police work.”

...this pilot program is similar to one he began rolling out when he was an officer working in Boston in the 1970s. It was so successful in his precinct, he was promoted within the Boston department to expand the program citywide. It never happened though, because Boston ended up laying off officers before Bratton’s plan could be implemented. Bratton also said there is a similar program used in the Los Angeles Police Department, which he led for seven years in the 2000s. “For years we’ve been asking our officers to engage in the community, but we’ve never given them time to do it, or the training,” Bratton said.

Under the new plan, officers will be able to more easily follow up on past crimes, meet with community members, and build relationships with local residents. “Cops will know their sectors and the citizens will know them. They’ll know the problem areas and the problem people. I truly believe when cops embrace their neighborhoods, their neighborhoods will embrace them back,” Bratton said.

If residents in those same neighborhoods take to the streets in civic protest, perhaps they'd be better policed by those same officers rather than heavily armed strangers.