New York Police Department commissioner Bill Bratton on Thursday unveiled plans for a new "anti-terrorism strike force" that would designate 350 officers to respond to special emergencies—including public protests—with a new wave of machine guns, long rifles, advanced technology, and "extra protective gear."
Bratton said the Strategic Response Group would handle "disorder control and counterterrorism protection capabilities" and is "designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris."
The news comes in the wake of sustained protests against police brutality after the deaths of Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Akai Gurley, and other black men and women at the hands of NYPD officers.
The Strategic Response Group will have one unit in Manhattan and two in Queens, although Bratton did not detail a timeline for the program's possible rollout.
"They’ll be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not," Bratton said. "They’ll be equipped with all the extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns—unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances."
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City residents, advocacy groups, and others criticized the program, warning that it was regressive and had the potential to be abused by a police force that has been in the international spotlight over its use of excessive force.
As noted by Daniel Rivero and Carol Schaeffer on the online news outlet Fusion, Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, who focuses on the politics of policing, took to his Twitter account to say Bratton's plan for the NYPD is "the definition of militarized mission creep."
According to Rivero and Schaeffer, "The plan to equip police with controversial weaponry—along with Bratton’s allusion to Black Lives Matter protesters in the same breath as the Charlie Hebdo attack—sparked an instant backlash online."
And Priscilla Gonzalez, organizing director of Communities United for Police Reform, told Gothamist:
Initial reports of Commissioner Bratton's plans suggest the opposite of progress. His demands for less oversight of the NYPD and a more militarized police force that would use counter-terrorism tactics against protestors are deeply misguided and frankly offensive. We need an NYPD that is more accountable to New Yorkers and that stops criminalizing our communities, especially when people are taking to the streets to voice legitimate concerns about discriminatory and abusive policing. Despite growing evidence that discriminatory broken windows is a failed and harmful policing strategy, Commissioner Bratton stubbornly continues to defend and expand it.