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Activists Demand Disbandment of Controversial NYPD Unit at City Hall Protest and Subsequent Public Hearing

The Strategic Response Group is coming under increased scrutiny as complaints over its harsh treatment of protesters continue to mount.

Mark Banchereau Mar 1, 2023

Activists and New York City Council members demanded the disbandment of the Strategic Response Group (SRG), a controversial NYPD unit with the dual task of anti-terrorism and responding to public demonstrations, at a rally in front of City Hall this morning. 

“I understand the need to sometimes have law enforcement at large-scale protests,” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said, standing in front of a group of ralliers on the steps of City Hall. “What I don’t understand is the need to use units trained for terrorist attacks to police non-violent protests,” he continued. 

The SRG was formed in 2015 as a counter-terrorism unit. Over the years, its mandate has expanded to include responses to protests, parades, and high-profile events such as the UN General Assembly. The unit is also used to patrol neighborhoods that have experienced spikes in crime. 

In recent years, the SRG has been frequently documented using aggressive crowd control tactics at protests, often escalating non-violent demonstrations. Instances of excessive use of force include pepper sprayings, baton beatings, and the use of bicycles as weapons.

The SRG is also particularly notorious for using a tactic known as “kettling,” encircling protests and leaving demonstrators with nowhere to escape before a mass arrest. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, more than 23 instances of kettling were documented between May 2020 and January 2021.

The SRG was formed in 2015 as a counter-terrorism unit. Over the years, its mandate has expanded to protest quelling. 

Officers used this tactic during a George Floyd protest in Mott Haven in the Bronx on June 4, 2020, prompting Human Rights Watch to call the unit’s response a “violation of international human rights law” in a 99-page report.

“The SRG is an unconstitutional, criminal unit that is used to brutalize citizens exercising their First Amendment rights,” says Councilmember Chi Ossé, who introduced a bill to the City Council preventing the dispatch of the SRG at non-violent protests.

The unit has also been deployed during protests in front of abortion clinics, at Queer Liberation marches and against immigrants-rights advocates, including on Feb. 1 to disband a migrant protest encampment at the Watson Hotel.

“Two of the NYPD officers involved in my son’s murder were from the Strategic Response Group,” said Eric Vassell, whose son, Saheed Vassell, a man suffering from mental illness, was shot and killed by the NYPD on April 4, 2014. 

“Hyper militarized units like the SRG do not make us safer. These officers come into our communities as if they are going to war,” said Vassell.

The City Council hearing that followed the rally saw more than four hours of public testimony about abuses endured at the hands of the SRG. The NYPD did not appear at the hearing, instead sending a written statement. 

Earlier in the day, the City announced that it had reached a legal settlement to pay $21,500 per person to hundreds of peaceful protesters in the South Bronx who were surrounded by the SRG at the June 4, 2020 protest in Mott Haven, attacked with batons and pepper spray and then arrested. 

“The NYPD remains committed to continually improving its practices in every way possible,” the department said in a statement it released when the settlement was announced.

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