Armed to the teeth to “keep the peace”?

February 4, 2015

Natalia Tylim reports on a newly announced NYPD unit that will roam the streets, armed with machine guns, in search of terrorists—and demonstrators.

AT A time when protesters across the country are calling for the demilitarization of the police, New York City is planning to outfit its cops with machine guns.

That's according to the announcement last week by William Bratton, the police commissioner handpicked by liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio. Bratton unveiled plans to create a Strategic Response Group, a new unit of 350 officers who will 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 some instances."

In 2004, murder rates in New York City fell to a historic low of 328--the lowest since statistics started being tracked in 1963. Overall, crime is down by 5 percent. The well-publicized slowdown by NYPD officers last month didn't exactly result in a decent into chaos.

So what is the justification for further arming the police? According to Bratton, the new force "is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai, or what just happened in Paris."

New York police on patrol with machine guns
New York police on patrol with machine guns (Emily Mills)

Yes, the commissioner is equating the overwhelmingly peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations with armed acts of terror. The de Blasio administration has now officially joined the dishonorable post-9/11 tradition of using the specter of terrorism to stoke racist backlash and justify crackdowns on civil liberties in the name of protecting citizens.

In fact, people in the U.S. are nine times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist attack. For people of color, that number is far higher. Putting more weapons into the hands of those who are committing the acts of violence in the first place is not designed to make Black and Brown lives more safe in New York City.

Those who want to defend Bill de Blasio by distancing him from the actions of his police chief should keep in mind that Bratton's new anti-protest unit is a continuation of de Blasio's efforts to get protesters against police violence off the streets.

After two Brooklyn cops were killed last December, the mayor called for a moratorium on demonstrations and joined the conservative backlash that blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for the actions of an emotionally troubled gunman. Now, de Blasio and Bratton are trying to use a moment when there are fewer protests taking place to create a new unit that will intimidate people from taking the streets.

IRONICALLY, BRATTON claims that one of the points of his new machine gun unit is to improve police-community relations. The idea is that with a special unit targeting terrorists/protesters, "regular" cops will be able to stay in the neighborhoods they patrol and not be pulled out to respond to citywide emergencies. "For years" Bratton said, "we've been asking our officers to engage in the community, but we've never given them time to do it, or the training."

The problem with this logic is that thanks to Bratton's "broken windows" theory of policing, most New York City cops "engage" community members by harassing them over petty offenses.

If the goal is to improve relations between cops and New Yorkers, there are a number of steps that would go a long way towards that goal, starting with the arrest and indictment of Officers Richard Haste, who killed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in the teenager's own bathroom; Philip Atkins, who shot Shantel Davis while she was trapped behind a deployed airbag in her car on a Brooklyn street; and Daniel Pantaleo, who used a chokehold barred by the NYPD to suffocate Eric Garner in Staten Island.

This list could be quite long, but de Blasio and Bratton are clearly not going to take a stand against the operations of the NYPD. Their goal instead is to repackage and re-sell the force, with a nicer face.

Broken Windows policies are guaranteed to lead to constant police harassment, which often ends in violence. The only force that could counterbalance this trend is a grassroots movement that understands that aggressively policing neighborhoods does not make them safer.

We can't leave our safety--in our communities or at a protest--in the hands of an unaccountable police force that commits violence every day and gets away with it. Mass demonstrations do not require a high level of armed patrol.

It's a scary thought that we might face an even larger, more organized, better armed police force at protests than what we already do. It certainly puts in perspective what we are up against, and how tactical and organized our side needs to be.

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