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Has the NYPD Become a Paramilitary Force?

The New York Police Department has become highly militarized and federalized in the years since September 11.

New York Police Department honor guards attend a game between New York City Football Club and Chicago Fire Soccer Club at Yankee Stadium in New York City, May 15, 2015. (Photo: lev radin /

“I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted back in 2011.

Since that time, the New York Police Department has become even more militarized, practiced in command-and-control practices that Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale describes as “paramilitary policing.”

The federalization and militarization of the NYPD following 9/11 created the model of paramilitary policing that’s reshaping law enforcement throughout the country.

Vitale identifies these seven qualities as the principal aspects of the increasingly popular framework of paramilitary policing:

  1. Surveillance and infiltration of nonviolent political organizations.
  2. Denial of protest permits and tight restrictions on demonstration locations.
  3. Heavy deployment and use of defensive equipment, such as body armor.
  4. The use of ‘less lethal’ weapons on non-violent protestors.
  5. Deployment of highly trained specialized police units to control demonstrations.
  6. Preemptive arrests and targeting of protest leaders.
  7. Coordination between local and federal law enforcement officials.

Other practices often accompanying paramilitary policing include the use of sophisticated cyber technologies, video surveillance and agents provocateurs.

A Militarized Approach to High-Profile Gatherings

The paramilitary quality of the NYPD’s approach to policing is most apparent in its treatment of any event designated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a National Special Security Event (NSSE): a high-profile, popular gathering such as a presidential inauguration, political party convention or the Super Bowl. The NSSE label is a category of state security originally established by former President Bill Clinton through a classified 1998 directive that includes the Olympics and gatherings of world leaders like the G20 or NATO summits.

Since 9/11, potential security threats have expanded to include political demonstrations (e.g., Occupy Wall Street) and civil disruptions (e.g., riots). The policing of such occurrences are overseen by the Secret Service working with a host of federal agencies, including the DHS, FBI and the Coast Guard, as well as the National Guard and appropriate local law-enforcement entities like the NYPD.

The routine militarization of police preparation for public events was most recently apparent in the NYPD’s preparations for the visit of Pope Francis to New York on September 24-26, 2015, as part of his first trip to the US and to speak before the United Nation’s 70th annual general session. Mayor Bill De Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton went to unprecedented lengths to ensure that the pope was safe not only from a possible terrorist attack, but from viewing unsightly aspects of city life, such as the growing army of the homeless.

In an internal 15-page threat assessment analysis, the New York Police Department (NYPD) observed: “While most of the events will have limited access due to the need for people to obtain a ticket or invitation in order to attend, large crowds congregating outside event locations and using public transportation can be attractive targets for individuals and groups looking to carry out attacks.”

According to one estimate, “more than 50 different agencies, including the pope’s own security detail” were involved in securing the pope’s visit. The NYPD reportedly committed 6,000 officers to the three-day pope/UN security spectacle. It put up 37 miles of street barriers composed of 24,500 individual pieces as well as 409 concrete blocks (weighing 818 tons) to keep New Yorkers from the pope. It erected an eight-foot-high fence around St. Patrick’s Cathedral along Fifth Avenue from 49th to 55th Streets and another one on Central Park West from 59th to 81st Street. It blocked off East 72nd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. It also rousted reputed homeless people encamped under the Metro-North tracks on 125th Street and Park Avenue near a Catholic school the pope was to visit, as well as those clustered on West 32nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues and in proximity to Madison Square Garden, where the pope was to say Mass. The US Army Ordinance Disposal Directorate and the NYPD Bomb Squad were enlisted to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs); none were discovered.

The pope visited; he spoke, traveled freely through the city, met innumerable people and was viewed by countless others, and he left the city. Nothing threatening reportedly occurred. In other words, the NYPD’s security effort to protect the pope (as well as the other dignitaries) was a success. But was all this a demonstration of organizational preparedness in case of a genuine national security threat, or was it an intentional publicity demonstration of an over-prepared, militarized security force showing its muscle?

An Increase in Heavily Armed Police Units

According to the city, the NYPD’s 2014 budget was $1.3 billion and the Counterterrorism Unit’s budget was $75.3 million, including city expenditures and grants; one can only imagine that its true budget is likely significantly higher. The unit consists of the following operating divisions: Terrorism Threat Analysis Group; the Training Section; the Critical Infrastructure Protection Section; the Transportation Security Section; the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNE); Policy and Planning Section; the Special Projects section; the Shield Unit; and the Emergency Response and Planning Section. The unit maintains a presence in 11 foreign countries. It is the only US police force to do so.

The NYPD defines terrorists as, “individuals or groups with the capacity to carry out an attack” and “are thought to be strategic thinkers that will pick targets based on perceived impact and vulnerability levels.” Not long after 9/11, the NYPD implemented what is known as “command and control” policing to contain potential security threats, whether mass gatherings, political protests, urban riots or civil disorders.

The NYPD has been creating a series of specialized Counterterrorism Units under the Emergency Service Unit (ESU), which is not itemized in the city budget. The ESU oversees the Special Operations Division of the Patrol Services Bureau that includes Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) and the hostage negotiators assist team. The ESU is a militarized unit, reportedly maintaining four armored vehicles acquired in 2006 from the US Defense Department’s free military transfer program: two Lenco Peacekeepers, armored vehicles from the US Air Force and two Lenco Bearcat armored personnel carriers. In addition, officers are equipped with AR-15 assault rifles and Mossberg 590 shotguns.

The ESU includes other heavily armed units. The “Hercules” teams consist of an intelligence officer, a canine unit, a highway patrol unit and a squad of heavily armed police officers. They are deployed for emergencies and are on an as-needed basis throughout the city. The “Sampson” task force is deployed to critical locations primarily in Manhattan South (below 59th Street). The “Atlas” team assists the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the Port Authority with transportation, harbor and aviation needs. It also maintains 24-hour coverage of the financial district. Finally, “Nexus” teams interface with the city’s business community in an effort to monitor unusual or suspicious activities.

In January 2015, NYPD Commissioner Bratton announced the formation of a new unit, the Strategic Response Group (SRG), a quick-reaction force consisting 350 cops dedicated to “disorder control and counterterrorism protection capabilities.” Armed with the latest in military firepower, the unit, according to Bratton, “is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.” The new unit was introduced at a time when the city’s murder and overall crime rates were at historically low levels, with popular discontent over inequality and arbitrary police practices rising.

In the wake of the police killing of Eric Garner in July 2014, the NYPD collaborated with the MTA and the Metro-North Railroad in the surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists at nearly two-dozen peaceful protests during the period of November 2014 to February 2015.

Vitale notes, “The NYPD does not use a lot of military-style equipment in its regular policing. There is the emergency services units that operate at times like conventional SWAT teams, dealing with barricaded suspects, armed standoffs, and active shooters.” He adds, “However, like other paramilitary teams, they also at times use this equipment to perform drug raids and serve ‘high risk’ search warrants.”

Will the NYPD Unleash Its Guns on Protesters?

Following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, paramilitary policing gained national attention. Two recent disturbances events suggest how the NYPD might respond to a possible mass disturbance, particularly a civil protest.

First, following the August 2015 killing of two CBS affiliate personnel, Adam Ward and Alison Parker, in Roanoke, Virginia, the NYPD deployed its Counterterrorism Bureau, Critical Response Vehicles and Hercules Teams to television news stations throughout the city. According to John Miller, Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism and Intelligence, “While there is no indication of any threat to media outlets beyond this incident, we have provided an additional layer of security until we have a fuller understanding of the motive behind the Virginia incident.” The NYPD was armed and ready, even though the killings were not a terrorist action.

Second, in Baltimore, more than 3,000 law enforcement personnel were deployed to contain a sustained but limited disruption. They included more than 400 DHS officers (Federal Protective Services [FPS] and Customs and Border Patrol Special Response Team); 1,783 state National Guard personnel; 400 state troopers from Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Prince George’s and Harford counties; and 495 law enforcement officers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington, DC. In addition, the DHS’ FPS established, through the Maryland Fusion Center, an integrated command group with representatives from the governor’s and mayor’s offices as well as participating federal agencies, including the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) that oversees “the nation’s physical and cyber infrastructure.”

Widespread public criticism of the use of paramilitary policing in Ferguson and other cities forced President Obama, in May 2015, to ban the sale of some kinds of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” he declared. And noted, military equipment can “alienate and intimidate local residents and may send the wrong message.” Reflecting on the president’s announcement, Vitale observed, “This will have very little effect. The restrictions are very narrow and don’t cover materials typically used by the NYPD.”

Protesting the Militarization of the Police

As political attention to racial injustice – an increasingly important issue in the 2016 presidential election – heats up, demonstrators in New York have been working to pressure New York politicians to address the racism enmeshed in the NYPD’s militarized approach to policing.

Rise Up October held a demonstration on Oct. 23 in Queens protesting the inhuman conditions on Rikers Island, calling for the Gotham gulag to be shut down. Then, on Oct. 24, hundreds of protestors marched from Washington Square Park to Bryant Park in a demonstration against police brutality.

Quentin Tarantino, Cornel West and Chris Hedges joined Temako Williams – whose son, La-Reko Williams, was killed in 2011 by police in Charlotte, North Carolina – and others to demand an end to police killings of unarmed Black men.

“I’m a human being with a conscience,” shouted Tarantino. “And if you believe there’s murder going on, then you need to rise up and stand up against it. I’m here to say I’m on the side of the murdered.”

Both protests drew heavy police responses, with the Oct. 24 demonstration leading to the arrest of 11 people.

The NYPD is taking up its arms in preparation for every potential popular disturbance, whether violent or not, drawing few distinctions between presidential visits, terrorist attacks, political protests and civil riot: in all cases, it is activating militarized police units.

Vitale cautions, “In NYC you don’t see the militarized response you see in Denver, Oakland, or other places. No special weapons, no body armor, no armored vehicles. There strategy is to use a massive number of police, tight containment, extensive planning and micro-control to prevent the use of force.”

If economic conditions get significantly worse, a relatively inconsequential act, like the ones that sparked the mass protests of the past, could precipitate a very violent civil disturbance. In the face of such a possible disruption, one can expect the might of the integrated security state apparatus – the coordinated NYPD and federal agencies – to rain down mercilessly. Be prepared for the worst.

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