The NYPD is gearing up.
Commissioner Dermot Shea, characterizing this year’s presidential election as “one of the most contested in the modern era,” has ordered his commanders to prepare for unrest in the days leading up to Nov. 3 and beyond.
‘Anticipate and Prepare’
In an internal memo that made the rounds at 1 Police Plaza Oct. 13, Mr. Shea ordered the department’s Bureau Chiefs and Deputy Commissioners to compile rosters of officers under their command who should be ready to deploy Oct. 25 through at least Election Day and even into next year in case dissent gets out of hand.
Given the political stakes, “we should anticipate and prepare for protests growing in size, frequency and intensity leading up to the election and likely into the year 2021,” Mr. Shea wrote.
According to the memo, nearly every city police officer, including most Detectives, will be required to be in uniform or be ready to don one later this month.
Commissioner Shea said a confluence of events and situations, such as rising crime and a tense political climate, necessitated a readiness response from the department. “It would be nice if we had an uneventful fall season but this is 2020, so I think the lesson here is to prepare for the worst and to be ready,” he said during an Oct. 13 interview on NY1.
While protests this past spring took place against the backdrop of rising coronavirus cases, crime was at relatively low levels since New Yorkers were spending the bulk of their time indoors.
In recent months, however, shootings and murders have spiked just as the department is also contending with a diminishing headcount attributable both to record retirements and the cancellation of one academy class—March’s—that by now would have allowed the NYPD to deploy hundreds of rookie officers to city streets.
“It’s a different scenario now, so it’s really all hands on deck across the NYPD,” Mr. Shea said on NY1.
Neither the Detectives’ Endowment Association nor the Police Benevolent Association responded to requests for comment on the memo's directives.
The NYPD declined a request to speak with Deputy Chief Samuel Wright, who is leading a department-wide training effort directed at addressing protests. A department spokeswoman said details on deployments would be addressed closer to Election Day.
Mr. Shea said that police commanders would take stock of protests before calibrating responses.
“We certainly police protests differently, depending on the facts in front of us,” he said on NY1. “You’re going to see riot gear when you see potential for violence, when you see actual violence.”
He and Mayor de Blasio have on several occasions emphasized people’s right to protest, a point Mr. Shea underlined during his NY1 appearance.
'Be Fair in Responding'
“Across the spectrum, I would argue that there’s one theme that is throughout and that’s supporting the right of protests, being fair in how you do it, and then responding to the conditions that you see,” the Commissioner said.
But the department has come in for criticism from several quarters for what some have alleged is its uneven and occasionally disproportionate responses to the protests and gatherings this spring and summer, most of which were intended to draw attention to instances and allegations of police brutality here and elsewhere.
In testimony to State Attorney General Letitia James, protest participants, including elected officials, said that officers were overly aggressive, in some instances indiscriminately and without warning, using tear gas and violent arrest tactics, including through so-called “kettling” maneuvers, often without provocation. The international NGOs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both detailed and addressed NYPD officers’ allegedly excessive use of force this year.
Although it’s not apparent from Mr. Shea’s memo, judging from incidents in the last few months, at least some of the police presence is likely to be in full tactical gear—which some policing experts have argued exacerbates tensions.
'We Certainly Adapt'
Although the NYPD has sometimes made it a point to communicate expectations they have of protesters or rally attendees and any rules that must be followed, the sheer number of protests this year, as well as their spontaneity, have posed logistical challenges—as well as institutional ones, given that the majority of protests have been directed at police themselves.
Mr. Shea said that while “each one of these protests is different and we certainly adapt to the conditions on the ground,” officers would be ready to respond, particularly if protests turn violent.
“It's our job to prepare for the worst and hopefully it’s not needed,” Mr. Shea said. “But certainly we have to be prepared for all eventualities.”
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