Each year, more than a million people flock to either side of the East River, jostling through security checkpoints and dense crowds in search of a close-up view of the Macy’s 4th of July fireworks.
But for some, snagging a front row seat to the spectacle is just a matter of knowing a police officer.
On Monday night, the NYPD held private parties for officers and their guests at multiple locations along the waterfront in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Even as public spectators were turned away from popular viewing sites due to a lack of space, the police-only areas remained off limits to those unaffiliated with law enforcement.
John Miller, a department spokesperson, defended the “informal practice,” which he said was meant to accommodate police family members “who are regularly called upon to make sacrifices for the city when their spouses miss major holidays because they are working.”
But some firework fans and public officials were less forgiving, accusing the department of treating premium park space as a perk of the job.
“It’s totally unacceptable,” said Councilmember Lincoln Restler, who represents the part of Williamsburg that includes Domino Park, where one of the private events took place. “The fireworks are for the people, it’s an abuse of power that should be investigated.”
At Long Island City’s Gantry Plaza State Park, onlookers said they were forced to compete for space on overcrowded piers. But one pier, directly in front of the Hunters Point Public Library, sat empty, save for a few dozen families sprawled out on picnic blankets, protected by a ring of NYPD officers, according to multiple people who spoke to Gothamist
“I called out and said, ‘Hey officer how do we get to go in there?’” recalled Steven Bodzin, a Jackson Heights resident and financial journalist. “She basically shrugged and said, ‘Look, if you know someone in police or fire department you can see if they can get you in.”
“So many kids around me were screaming because they couldn't see anything,” he added. “If they had cut that area in half then a huge number of people who couldn't see anything would have been able to enjoy the show and breathe freely.”
The fireworks are for the people — it’s an abuse of power that should be investigated.
John, a Manhattan resident who asked that his last name be withheld because his company is contracted with the NYPD, said he encountered one of the parties at Stuyvesant Cove on Manhattan's East Side Monday, but was quickly told to leave the area.
“This was definitely not any kind of staging or command center, they just rolled up and blocked off the best seats for them and their friends,” he said. “The [message] was: you shouldn’t be here, don’t bother us.”
The group, he said, set up dozens of chairs, amplified music, and coolers of food and drinks – items that are banned from official viewing areas, according to NYPD rules. Adding to his aggravation, John said he returned to his Stuy Town apartment to find cars bearing police union placards parked along the complex’s loop and on either side of the sidewalk, where vehicles are not permitted to park.
“They’re very visibly positioning themselves as VIPs [who] can do what other people can't,” he said. “There’s not a lot of consideration for the people who live here.”
Miller, the NYPD spokesperson, did not respond directly to a question about officers parking their cars along the loop. He noted that priority for the accommodations went to “widows and orphans of police officers who went to work and never made it home.”
Photos posted to Instagram showed the Police Benevolent Association was passing out food and drinks to members in the viewing areas. Hours after Gothamist inquired with the union about one of the photos — which shows a police union truck parked in an area of Manhattan's Waterside Plaza that was closed off to the public — the post was deleted. A union spokesperson deferred comment to the NYPD.
Other New Yorkers reported a similar exclusive gathering on the Brooklyn side of the fireworks.
Ashley Bardhan, a 23-year-old Bed-Stuy resident, said she arrived at Domino Park to watch the show before 7 p.m., more than two hours before it was set to start. As she searched for a spot among the throngs of spectators, she noticed an elevated walkway with plenty of space. When she approached, Bardhan said, an officer guarding the barricade told her to move along.
“I asked who can go up there and he said: ‘You can’t.’ I said, ‘Okay but who can?’ He said ‘special people,’” Bardhan recalled. “I asked if it was just friends and family of police officers and he smiled and said ‘maybe.’”
The officer later conceded that he had just let in a detective and his family, Bardhan said.
While the elevated walkway remained uncrowded throughout the night, the rest of Domino Park was overflowing. By 8:45 p.m., roughly 40 minutes before the fireworks began, would-be spectators were informed the park was at capacity and turned away.
The decision to close the park was a “joint decision” made by NYPD and Two Trees, the real estate developer that owns and operates Domino Park, according to a Two Trees spokesperson.
Asked about the police-only area of the park, Michael Lampariello, the director of Domino Park, said the elevated walkway was closed to the public during the fireworks for safety reasons, “but was accessible to a limited number of the public safety personnel who helped ensure a safe experience for everyone, along with a few family members.”
It’s not the first time that access to the Macy’s fireworks display has stirred controversy. In 2019, the Howard Hughes Corporation faced blowback after hosting a $492-a-ticket event during the show, blocking public access to Pier 17 in apparent violation of their land use agreement.
At the time, Macy’s said they did not “approve, endorse or participate” in private events geared around the fireworks show.
The department store did not respond to Gothamist’s inquiries about the NYPD-only events.