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NYPD’s Protest-Control Group Ducks City Council Scrutiny

Issue 278

NYPD officials refuse to appear before a City Council committee looking into a police special unit with a history of assaulting protesters.

Mark Bancherau & Amba Guerguerian Mar 21, 2023

Activists and New York City Council members demanded the disbandment of the Strategic Response Group (SRG), a controversial NYPD unit, at a March 1 rally in front of City Hall and hearing, held by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, that followed it. 

“What I don’t understand is the need to use units trained for terrorist attacks to police non-violent protests,” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said at the rally.

“The SRG is an unconstitutional, criminal unit that is used to brutalize citizens exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Councilmember Chi Ossé (D-Crown Heights), who was an organizer of Black Lives Matter protests before he was elected to City Council in 2021. He has introduced a bill that would bar the deployment of the SRG at non-violent protests.

The SRG was formed in 2015 as a counter-terrorism and protest-control unit following a nationwide wave of Black Lives Matter protests in November and December of 2014 sparked by the non-indictment of police officers responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 

“When you think about the landscape of the time, there were ongoing racial justice protests in New York City, and the department knew that those protests would continue,” Isabelle Levya, the leader of the NYCLU’s campaign to disband the SRG, told The Indypendent

Police officers who want to see “more action” volunteer for the unit, Leyva said. The SRG was launched with 350 officers and an annual budget of $13 million. Since then, it has ballooned to 700 officers with a current estimated annual budget of $134 million. Currently, counter-terrorism is not mentioned as one of the unit’s responsibilities on any of the various the City SRG web pages. 

The unit is also notorious for using a tactic known as “kettling,” encircling protests and leaving demonstrators with nowhere to escape.

Known to many activists as the “goon squad,” the SRG has served  in recent years as the leading edge of the NYPD’s response to political protests. It is also deployed to parades and high-profile events such as the annual mid-September gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly. 

“The SRG’s involvement in policing protests, as we have seen, unfortunately seems to be more about suppression of speech and assembly and less about keeping everyone safe,”  Williams said.

Activists have repeatedly documented that the SRG’s aggressive crowd control tactics — pepper sprayings, baton beatings and the use of bicycles as weapons — escalate tensions at non-violent demonstrations and give the SRG an excuse to use further violence against their targets. 

The unit is also 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.

Officers used this tactic during a George Floyd protest in Mott Haven in the Bronx on June 4, 2020 which resulted in more than 250 arrests of demonstrators who were physically prevented from following police orders to get out of the street, prompting Human Rights Watch to call the unit’s response a “violation of international human rights law” in a scathing  99-page report. “I witnessed first-hand police lieutenants and other high-ranking officers lead the charge by jumping on cars and bashing the heads of legal aid who were there monitoring police activity and volunteer medics,” said Alvin Dan, a Mott Haven protester who testified at the SRG hearing. 

Also on March 1, the City announced that it had reached a legal settlement to pay $21,500 per person to hundreds of the Mott Haven protesters. “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.

The SRG still plays a central role in the NYPD’s disorder-control strategy, providing tactical support to the department’s efforts to clear homeless encampments throughout the city. It has been deployed during protests outside reproductive clinics, at Queer Liberation marches and against immigrants-rights advocates.

Since October, the SRG has also been deployed to 20 “high-crime” precincts in New York City, the vast majority of which are in communities of color. “That’s deeply alarming,” says Levya. “And folks that are in these communities do not know that this is happening.”

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

‘These officers come into our communities as if they are going to war.’

According to the Vassells’ neighbors, the 34-year-old often pretended to be holding a gun. “The local cops know him. Sometimes they’d see him doing that, and they would ignore him because they know how he is. They calm him down. The cops that came, they didn’t know him,” Joey Katabi, who worked in Vassell’s neighborhood at the time he was gunned down, told The Indypendent in 2018.

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

The March 1 City Council hearing that followed the rally saw more than four hours of public testimony about abuses endured at the hands of the SRG. 

“Officer Peter Quigly smashed my face with his baton and proceeded to put me in a chokehold with the same baton after throwing my friend to the ground while we were backing a way,” testified Dan, a graduate student in social work at Hunter College. “That same officer murdered an unarmed black man in 2008.”

The NYPD did not appear at the hearing after it had been postponed twice before at the department’s request. Instead, it sent a written statement to the dismay of council members and advocates. Some of the public testifiers expressed similar dismay after most of the city councilmember got up and walked out as the civilian commenced, a common practice during public testimony.

The Public Safety Committee has sent written questions to the NYPD and expects a “swift response,” said Committee Chair Kamillah Hanks (D-Staten Island). Hanks could, following a majority vote of the committee, sign a subpoena to force city officials to testify at hearings and to require the city to produce certain documents but has so far refused to do so. 

The NYCLU has led a grassroots campaign to disband the SRG and reinvest its budget in communities, partnering with political groups and individuals that have experienced the unit’s violence. It was the driving force behind the March 1 hearing. With 21 council members signed on in support of the campaign, the NYCLU hopes to use negotiations on the annual City budget to target spending on the SRG. Those negotiations will conclude in June. The NYPD’s stonewalling doesn’t make their task any easier. 

“We had many, many questions ready for City Council members to ask the NYPD,” Levya said, specifically around the size and cost of the SRG, because “we cannot ask for units to be disbanded if we don’t know how much money to take out of the budget.”

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