How An NYPD Anti-Terror Squad Became A Tool For Cracking Down On Protests


On a Thursday evening in November, two days after the presidential election, lots of of New Yorkers gathered exterior the Stonewall Inn for a march in opposition to police brutality. The occasion was one in a collection of Black Trans Liberation marches, a recurring protest and pleasure parade held every week for the reason that police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Not like the earlier iterations, which had proceeded with out incident, this one was accompanied by scores of closely armored officers with the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group.

The battle started nearly instantly. Because the march moved downtown, members of the SRG — outfitted with bicycles and clad in combat-style chest plates and shoulder pads — shortly cleared the road, shoving close by demonstrators, together with NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Police arrested 18 protesters, together with the organizer, Joel Rivera, who was tackled to the bottom and charged with carrying a bullhorn.

Later within the night, because the protest started to taper off in Union Sq., a phalanx of SRG officers rushed into the group, deploying a controversial tactic often called kettling to pin the group contained in the park. In accordance with a sergeant on the scene, the crackdown was prompted by protesters throwing water bottles.

On the Brian Lehrer Present the next morning, Mayor Invoice de Blasio denied allegations of police overreach, insisting that officers have been responding to particular threats, not antagonizing peaceable protesters. “Mr. Mayor you appear to be lacking the apparent level,” a caller who attended the march knowledgeable him. “There are lots of and lots of and lots of of cops in full army gear, chanting ‘transfer’ as in the event that they’re within the military, for a fraction of the protesters.”

A number of weeks later, the Division of Investigation would launch their very own evaluation of the NYPD remedy of protesters following Floyd’s homicide, faulting the division for an “intimidating, confrontational” response that provoked, relatively than diminished, tensions on the demonstrations.

The report attributed a lot of these points to the central position of the SRG, a roughly 700-person unit that got here to supervise a command of two,000 officers in the course of the Floyd protests. It urged the division to create a completely new Protest Response Unit, and to rethink the mission of the SRG — suggestions that the Mayor’s Workplace has vowed to observe.

However as the town faces rising exterior pressures to reform the NYPD, substantial questions stay about whether or not it will probably really remake its protest policing drive. In accordance with regulation enforcement consultants from throughout the political spectrum, understanding the rise of the SRG, and the methods through which it was allowed to evade accountability underneath the present administration, can be essential to safeguarding the rights of New Yorkers sooner or later.

“The Unique Sin”

In January of 2015, Police Commissioner Invoice Bratton was outlining his new imaginative and prescient for the NYPD at Midtown luncheon. Pointing to the latest terrorist assaults in Paris and Mumbai, Bratton mentioned he had recognized a necessity for an “elite” tactical drive educated in “superior dysfunction management.” This new Strategic Response Group was to include 350 officers, with outposts in each borough, tasked with preventing home terrorism and overseeing large-scale occasions, together with protests.

After advocates bristled on the concept of using counter-terrorism techniques on Constitutionally-protected political demonstrations, Chief of Division James O’Neill — who’d quickly exchange Bratton as the town’s prime cop — tried to stroll again his boss’s assertion.

“They won’t be concerned in dealing with protests and demonstrations,” O’Neill informed reporters. “They will don’t have any position in protests. Their response is single-fold. They will be doing counterterror work.”

When the division did start deploying SRG officers to protests later that yr, the town’s legislators didn’t appear to note. Melissa Mark Viverito, who served as Council Speaker, informed Gothamist she couldn’t recall any dialogue of the unit or its position in demonstrations. “It’s unimaginable for us to know the trivialities of each single resolution they’re making,” Viverito mentioned. “The NYPD has at all times been a rogue entity.”

On the time, she was centered on the push to rent 1,000 new officers as a part of a brand new group policing effort. Regardless of some preliminary opposition, de Blasio agreed to the request in Might of 2015, unexpectedly throwing in an extra 300 officers, whom he mentioned can be centered on counterterrorism. Whereas the division doesn’t launch any personnel selections, policing consultants imagine these officers have been absorbed by the SRG.

Members of the newly-built Strategic Response Group conducting drills on Randall's Island in late 2015


Members of the newly-built Strategic Response Group conducting drills on Randall’s Island in late 2015

Scott Heins/Gothamist

By the tip of its first yr, the variety of SRG officers had ballooned to twice its promised measurement. The unit’s personnel price range, initially recorded at $13 million, soared to greater than $90 million per yr by 2016 — an expense that has remained principally regular within the years since, in keeping with the Unbiased Finances Workplace. The pledge from division brass to separate its terrorism and protest policing was deserted with out acknowledgement.

“The arrival of the SRG utterly modified the panorama of policing of protests by the NYPD,” mentioned Chris Dunn, the Authorized Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. New Yorkers who encountered the SRG at protests observed a change in techniques instantly, dubbing the unit the “Goon Squad.”

The group’s predecessor, a smaller borough-based unit referred to as the Dysfunction Management Unit, which was later folded into the SRG, had performed a significant position in high-profile occasions like Occupy Wall Avenue. Whereas the DCU had left smaller demonstrations to the native borough patrols, the brand new group was exhibiting up extra incessantly, deploying an aggressive military-style response that “just about invariably escalated tensions,” Dunn mentioned.

These techniques exploded into the general public view this previous June, when armored SRG officers got here to outline the general public picture of the NYPD’s violent response to Black Lives Matter protesters marching in opposition to police brutality. On prime of its 700 officers, the SRG, and its commanding officer, John D’Adamo, additionally supervised an extra 1,300 officers deployed in the course of the protests as a part of the NYPD’s Cellular Discipline Forces. The division’s Group Affairs Bureau, in keeping with the DOI report, was not a part of the planning or technique for policing the Floyd protests.

“The unique sin of the SRG was that it married terrorism policing and protest policing,” Dunn informed Gothamist. “Predictably that resulted in very heavy-handed protest policing.”

“A Robust Navy Look”

Specialists in crowd psychology have lengthy embraced a philosophy often called the “Madison Technique,” through which officers policing protests are instructed to facilitate, relatively than confront, First Modification exercise. The Job Power on twenty first Century Policing, convened by President Obama within the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, was largely primarily based on that paradigm. It recommends regulation enforcement businesses keep away from army model formations and riot gear when policing protests, and talk brazenly with individuals in an illustration.

Such a “guardian mindset” runs counter to the NYPD’s historic method to policing political speech — significantly when police are the topic of these protests. In earlier years, the Dysfunction Management Unit was discovered to have endorsed techniques comparable to infiltrating demonstrations with the intention to unfold misinformation, and making “proactive arrests” to set a “tone.” Throughout Occupy Wall Avenue, a memo from the unit reminded officers of the “psychological benefit” of sustaining a “robust army look” at protests.

Whereas de Blasio has incessantly touted the NYPD’s evolution underneath his administration, critics of the division see the SRG as a continuation of that old skool method. Officers assigned to the bike squad are divided into platoons, with positions comparable to “linebacker” and “level officer” that make use of elaborate line formations to include protests. Within the early days of the Floyd protests, members of the unit started carrying full-body tactical gear, bought from the motocross firm Fox Head Inc. Along with bigger protests, the so-called “laborious gear” has since appeared at demonstrations with just some dozen folks and post-election celebrations.

“For 100 years the NYPD managed to cope with protests with nothing greater than helmets and in just a few uncommon events riot shields,” mentioned Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn School and the creator of The Finish of Policing. “Now they’ve closely armored officers, water cannons, extra frequent use of pepper spray, lengthy vary acoustic gadgets. It’s an escalation of repression techniques.”

Gothamist’s Freedom of Data requests in search of crowd management coaching supplies have been denied by the NYPD. However supplies seen by the Regulation Division confirmed that the division’s dysfunction curriculum remains to be centered on the discredited “mob mentality” principle. It describes individuals in a protest as adrenalized, unpredictable actors who could also be experiencing “emotional arousal created by contagion,” in keeping with an excerpt printed by the Regulation Division in December.

Anthony Raganella, who spent eight years because the commanding officer of the NYPD’s Dysfunction Management Unit previous to the creation of the SRG, mentioned that officers policing protests face a singular set of challenges, and have to be ready for the potential of unpredictable violence. He famous that dozens of NYPD officers sustained accidents in the course of the Floyd protests, which at instances devolved into unrest and looting.

“There needs to be a stability between the First Modification and the mandate of police to keep up public order, and that’s a really delicate stability,” Raganella informed Gothamist.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that the NYPD’s method to crowd management was largely “antiquated.” Earlier than retiring from the drive in 2018, Raganella, who describes himself as a “visionary” of the SRG, introduced the division with a 13-week coaching academy for the unit’s officers, with finest practices on crowd management that he’d pulled from European police departments. That acquired whittled right down to a two-week program, half of which is spent on utilizing heavy weapons, in keeping with Raganella. “My concept of professionalization and specialization went proper out the window,” he mentioned.

“Window Dressing”

As a part of his promise to reform the division, de Blasio has pledged to implement a collection of coverage adjustments, outlined by the Division of Investigation, centered on the policing of protests. The doc’s first two objects name on the NYPD to create a brand new Protest Response Unit that doesn’t report back to the SRG and to replace its Patrol Information with a coverage on protests that is developed assist from civil rights attorneys and the group.

The NYPD didn’t reply to a listing of questions in regards to the present standing of these suggestions. In an electronic mail to Gothamist, a police spokesperson mentioned that the division handles as much as 10 protests each day, most of which don’t contain the SRG. “The NYPD now positions Group Affairs Officers in entrance of protestors but additionally makes use of assets as warranted in a versatile method,” in keeping with a spokesperson, Sergeant Jessica McRorie.

“Our first aim is defending the protection and first modification rights of protesters,” mayoral spokesperson Avery Cohen added in a separate assertion. “In step with the suggestions of DOI, we’ve made a tactical shift in our protest response, designating Group Affairs workers as the first liaisons on the bottom. We look ahead to implementing DOI’s broader set of suggestions.”

Even after the suggestions took impact, the SRG has continued to reply forcefully to Black Lives Matter protests, most notably throughout a Martin Luther King Day demonstration final month. Reform advocates say that the company’s deeply ingrained angle towards protesters signifies that most of the issues SRG will doubtless persist, no matter which a part of the company is technically in cost.

“Placing just a few officers in blue group affairs jackets in entrance of the police line isn’t new,” mentioned Vitale, the Brooklyn School professor. “It’s window dressing.”

“The mayor gave free rein to the NYPD to dramatically develop their political policing with no public oversight or accountability,” he added. “Folks don’t have any selection however to take to the streets.”