Heavily-armored and standing at rapt attention, over a hundred members of the NYPD's newly-rebuilt Strategic Response Group conducted drills on Randall's Island Wednesday as Commissioner Bill Bratton and other top brass looked on. Officers conducted maneuvers in unison on an expanse of empty blacktop and also donned hazmat suits to demonstrate bomb detection technology, all of which are key elements of the department's accelerated anti-terrorism efforts.
"We've lived in very interesting times over the last few years," Bratton said as he explained the SRG's three primary goals: crime reduction; terroristic, active shooter situations; and crowd and protest control.
"Safe from crime, safe from terrorists, safe from disorder," Bratton promised the press who had gathered for the security theater demonstration.
While NYPD brass including Chief of Department James O'Neill and Counter-Terrorism Chief James Waters idealized the SRG's mission, others have called the unit's tactics into question. The SRG has already been deployed to suppress multiple Black Lives Matter protests in the past year and on multiple occasions police have used a military-grade LRAD noise cannon and aggressive arrest tactics against demonstrators, as well as members of the press. Early this year, facing outcry over the conflation of terrorism and constitutionally protected protests, Chief O'Neill pledged to separate the functions and not use the Group to police demonstrations, but the department evidently never followed through on that.
"SRG seems to be the unit assigned to police protests throughout all of NYC, which is extremely problematic," activist and writer Keegan Stephan told Gothamist via email. "They have earned the reputation among protesters as a goon squad, much more likely to get physical with protesters and make arrests than cops from the local precinct."
Stephan also says SRG officers appear to be chillingly familiar with local activists. "Surveillance and being targeted for arrests is a big and not unfounded concern among activists. Increasingly, the SRG members are randomly using the first names of protesters to 'say hello' before demonstrations begin. And frequently, those same protesters will be arrested later in the demo," Stephan said.
Like Stephan, civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver describes these NYPD tactics to push back against constitutionally protected protest as "chilling."
"The SRG combines many of the problems of the NYPD’s Disorder Control Unit’s approach to crowd control and policing with many of the problems of its Intelligence Division's and Counterterrorism Bureau's approaches to pre-emptively and hyper-aggressively policing political protests in the streets," Oliver told Gothamist.
"Rather than rejecting approaches to policing protests that have proven to result in civil rights violations, the NYPD has continued to entrench and institutionalize those approaches, including recently in the form of the SRG," Oliver said. Currently, officers in the group are specifically trained to move against crowds and protests, and the SRG have already been deployed during the Thanksgiving Day parade, and will be stationed in Times Square on New Year's Eve.
Throughout 2015, the SRG has swollen in size to nearly double its initial plan for 350 officers. Bratton said the group will soon top out at 800 in total. Prior to 2014, the SRG was relatively disorganized, comprised of eight patrol borough task forces with ill-defined responsibilities. All that has changed, however, and Wednesday's drills showcased the group's systematic ability to construct and enforce a perimeter—one of its main purposes in active shooter and hostage conflicts.
"We will now have, in the NYPD, a triple-layer of capabilities," Bratton said. "The emergency services unit...the newly-formed CRC [Critical Response Command], and this reformed task force that always existed but really had diminished to about 400 officers scattered across the city. Now what you've all seen here, they're all properly equipped and trained."
When asked about the NYPD's response to more specific terror threats, including threats made Tuesday that closed schools in Los Angeles, Bratton stressed that his officers had "been in pretty much constant contact about the events of the threats that we received yesterday." A threat letter was also sent to NYC, outlining a plan to attack public schools, but Bratton dismissed it as the work of someone who watches too much Homeland. (Here's the text of the letter to the LA public schools.)
Police leadership was also briefed Wednesday morning by a senior official of the Parisian police who was active in the siege of the Bataclan theater during last month's terrorist attack that left over 130 people dead. "We're trying to improve the safety of our officers to the greatest degree possible," Bratton said.