January 30, 2015
Commissioner Bratton announced this week that he was creating a new Strategic Response Group of 350 officers. Housed in the Counterterrorism Bureau, they would be outfitted with new heavy weapons and trained in special tactics for dealing with terrorism, civil unrest, and protests…yes, protests. This is an example of exactly the kind of false conflation of threats that has led to a massive expansion of militarized policing across the US over the last 30 years.
If any city has a legitimate claim to needing specially armed and trained police to deal with terrorism it is New York. Critics of militarized policing have largely given the NYPD a pass on the creation of such units because they have been limited in both size and mission. The current Counterterrorism Task Force has dozens of officers outfitted with machine guns and other combat grade equipment including armored jeeps, but their mission has been largely limited to protecting high profile targets such as the UN and foreign embassies.
The commissioner’s proposal raises many troubling issues. Criminal Justice Professor Peter Kraska has painstakingly documented the explosive and alarming increase in police paramilitary units across the US. These SWAT type units were created initially as a response to extremely rare armed confrontations with police in the 1970’s. Very quickly, however, these units found that they had almost no such incidents to respond to and instead were put to use on the front lines of the War on Drugs—driven by a massive infusion of Federal funds for that purpose. Thousands of these units, in cities large and small, spend the vast amount of their time serving search warrants—mostly for low level drug dealers. Washington Post columnist Radley Balko has documented in excruciating detail the ways in which these practices have eroded civil liberties and produced massive collateral damage against totally innocent people whose homes have been violated, pets shot, and themselves killed in a never ending litany of mistaken raids.
During the Occupy movement we witnessed another misuse of these teams. Time and again non-violent demonstrators were confronted by heavily armed and armored “robo-cops,” who often deployed high levels of force including tear gas, and other “less lethal” weaponry. Last year the images of militarized units, paid for largely out of anti-terror funds provided by the Department of Homeland Security, confronting street demonstrators in Ferguson, shocked the national conscience and undoubtedly contributed to the violence and disorder on the streets there.
Up until now, however, New York has largely avoided these problems. Both during Occupy and more recent protests against climate change and police misconduct, the NYPD has avoided a militarized response. While there have been many criticism of their handling of Occupy, and litigation continues, we did not see heavily armed NYPD SWAT or Counterterror teams policing the demonstrations, and no use of high tech “less lethal” weaponry. The NYPD already has special Task Force teams in each patrol bureau with extensive training in protest policing, but these teams don’t utilize the kind of heavy weapons and armor being proposed for the new teams.
In fact, in the last year we’ve actually seen a dialing back of aggressive and restrictive protest policing tactics that had been common. The NYPD showed remarkable restraint and flexibility in handling the massive climate march in September and a mass sit-in on Lower Broadway the next day. Similarly, they showed great wisdom in taking a soft approach to the police accountability and racial justice protests in recent months.
Ironically, the low point of the policing of those demonstrations was when the existing Disorder Control Unit utilized a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) on a small group marching in the street after a minor scuffle. These devices are capable of causing short and long term health problems and should be used only as a last resort to avoid baton charges or higher levels of force, none of which were warranted in this case. The decision to use it seemed driven by the availability of a new toy much more than any practical law enforcement purpose, and signals exactly the problem of “mission creep” that the possession of this hardware poses.
Protests are not acts of terror, even when they are disorderly and disruptive. There is no legitimate basis for lumping them into the same category as terrorism. To do so is to fundamentally abridge their legitimacy, which flies in the face of the Frist Amendment. The NYPD has shown itself perfectly capable of managing a wide range of protest activity without relying on heavily armed police. The militarization of protest policing would be a dramatic step backwards for the NYPD and would serve to undermine their credibility and legitimacy.