By Oliver Laughland
for The Guardian
The creation of a new counter-terrorism unit within the NYPD, which will be armed with “machine guns” and tasked with policing protests as well as guarding the city against any terrorist threat, has drawn heavy criticism from legal groups and police reform advocates.
Police commissioner Bill Bratton announced a new 350-officer strong Strategic Response Group (SRG) on Thursday along with a raft of police reforms including equipping more officers with Tasers and body-worn cameras.
Bratton said the unit was “designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris”.
He added that the SRG would be “equipped and trained in ways our normal patrol officers are not”, given “extra protective gear, the long rifles, machine guns, as is unfortunately necessary sometimes in these instances”.
The remarks drew criticism from reform advocates and legal groups, who accused Bratton of comparing recent non-violent Black Lives Matter protests in the city with terrorist attacks abroad.
“The comparison of Black Lives Matter and other large protests to violent terrorist attacks is an outrage and an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been marching across the country against racism and for police reform,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, the executive director of the Partnership For Civil Justice Fund, a legal group representing hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in 2011.
“Thousands have marched in a massive civil rights movement demanding police reform, and the NYPD has decided to respond to the community instead by arming the police with machine guns,” she continued.
The recent wave of demonstrations against police brutality across the US saw thousands take to the streets of New York City. The protesters shut down a number of major roadways at the height of the movement in December.
Bratton argued the creation of the dedicated unit would free up personnel from precincts around the city already assigned to heavily armed critical response units (CRVs).
Priscila Gonzalez, organising director of Communities United for Police Reform said the creation of the unit was “the opposite of progress”.
“His [Bratton’s] demands for a more militarised police force that would use counterterrorism tactics against protesters are deeply misguided and frankly offensive,” Gonzalez said in a statement.
“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.”
In December Barack Obama resisted calls to curtail federal programs transferring military equipment, including firearms, to local police forces. The calls mounted following protests in Ferguson after the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, which were heavily suppressed by local police.