NYPD Verrazzano

PREPARING: The NYPD recently held training exercises addressing any number of potential scenarios that could befall the city leading up to and beyond Election Day, including natural disasters and explosions. Above, officers from the department’s Special Operations Bureau’s Emergency Service Unit trained on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge earlier this month. 

The NYPD will be out in force beginning Oct. 26 to defend residents’ “sacred right" to cast votes in what is turning out to be a contentious presidential contest even in this Democratic-heavy city, Chief of Department Terence Monahan said. 

As they must by law, officers will be present at each of the city’s 1,201 polling places on Nov. 3, as well as at the 88 locations where early voting will take place through Nov. 1.

But to guard against any large-scale occurrence that could disrupt the vote, Chief Monahan and Deputy Chief John Miller said during an Oct. 20 press briefing on the department’s preparations leading up to and following Election Day, contingents of officers will be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Ready for Anything

Although Deputy Chief Miller, who heads the Intelligence and Counterterrorism bureau, emphasized that the department was not aware of any “specific, credible threat,” he said police had prepared for any contingency. 

The NYPD recently held tabletop and other training exercises addressing natural disasters, suspicious packages, explosive devices, random violence and protests, he said. It also reviewed past events to hone responses to crowd control. 

“And again, we don’t have any information or suspect that we’re going to have any of those things in particular but based…[on] the ability to rapidly mobilize personnel, move them from place to place, and make sure we have adequate coverage, we wanted to kind of test all of those synapses to see that they’re firing properly,” Mr. Miller said. 

The NYPD is also working with the FBI, the city Board of Elections and the NYC Cyber Command to detect and, if need be, address attempts at electronic sabotage such as a cyber-attack. 

“We factor all of that into the intelligence picture, not in a passive way, but in a very active way,” he said.

The department has been gathering information about potential disturbances through numerous sources, including its intelligence division, and keeping tabs on events in other cities, Deputy Chief Miller said.   

‘We Are Apolitical’

Officers will be briefed daily on any updates regarding potential disturbances, Chief Monahan said, with the department preparing for “a very heavy turnout.”

“Just like any other major event in our city, planning for this did not begin yesterday,” the department’s top uniformed cop said. “We’ve done more training after what happened earlier this year,” he added, alluding to the large protests and disturbances, including looting, that followed the death of George Floyd during his arrest by Minneapolis Police in May.

Asked whether the Police Benevolent Association’s endorsement of President Trump could color officers’ responses, Chief Monahan was unequivocal.

“When we put on this uniform, we are apolitical. We have no stance one way or another,” he said. 

Police, he said, have “one role, and that’s to make sure [people] can come in and vote.”

The PBA president, Patrick J. Lynch, differentiated the union’s endorsement from officers’ duties. 

“Like most unions, the PBA endorses candidates for office every single year,” he said in a statement, notwithstanding that the presidential endorsement was the union’s first since at least 1984. “And every single year, New York City police officers protect the right of all New Yorkers to cast their ballots in peace and safety. This year is no different.”

Assess, Then Respond

The press briefing on the NYPD’s preparations followed an internal memo from Commissioner Dermot Shea distributed Oct. 13 in which he ordered the department’s Bureau Chiefs and Deputy Commissioners to compile rosters of officers, including most Detectives, who could be ready to deploy beginning the last week of October and possibly into next year in case dissent tied to the election 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.

Although Mr. Monahan said the department would “facilitate peaceful protests,” he cautioned those who might be intent on initiating disturbances.

“Let me be clear, the NYPD is fully prepared to protect every single person’s right to vote,” the Chief of Department said. “If anyone interferes with people’s right to vote, we will take action. That’s why we have police officers on the scene. We are impartial, but we will not allow anyone to interfere with any American’s right to come out and vote.” 

As Mr. Shea did in his memo, Mr. Monahan said police commanders would take stock of demonstrations and protests before calibrating any responses. “If violence starts occurring, if damage to public property starts occurring, at that point the commander on the ground will make a decision whether to make arrests and who to arrest,” he said. 

‘Obligation to Protect Protest’

The NYPD has been criticized for what some, including the international NGOs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have said were disproportionately heavy-handed and even violent responses to protests and gatherings this spring and summer. 

“It’s really remarkable...the extent to which the Commissioner and his boss have failed to recognize and honor their obligation to protect protest in New York City over the past several months,” Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a phone interview. "There hasn't been an iota of self-reflection about the well-documented abuses of the NYPD against protesters.”

She said that if the highlighting of police preparations ahead of the election was also designed to caution those who would take to the streets before and after Nov. 3, Mr. Shea and Mayor de Blasio “need to remember that we’re a progressive town and that we’re a town that values democracy, and that whatever happens in the election, New Yorkers are going to want to be, need to be and actually be in the streets.”

For police, she said, that will translate into “showing up in a respectful way” at any demonstrations, such as by wearing masks, not donning unsanctioned “Thin Blue Line” insignia, “and it means not looking for any excuse to beat up on people they don’t like.”

Chief Expresses Optimism

Chief Monahan said he hoped and also expected that the city would stay relatively tranquil leading up to Election Day. 

“Things have gotten a lot calmer,” with demonstrations and protests now attracting hundreds rather than thousands as they did earlier this year. 

“We don’t expect any skirmishes, we don’t expect any large demonstrations. We expect this to go like any other election does. I don’t see any reason for anyone to try and affect people’s right to vote," he said.

But, adding that the election “is more contentious than in years past,” Mr. Monahan said the department would be ready for any large-scale and potentially aggressive demonstrations.   

“We want to be very careful not to, either we don’t over-police, in that it could send a signal, or under-police,” he said. “But we want to be prepared.”

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