WHEN THOUSANDS OF New Yorkers poured into the city’s streets last summer following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, they were met with the very police violence they had come to protest.
In the days following Floyd’s death, and then again during protests last fall, New York police arrested hundreds of people, many with no probable cause. They pepper-sprayed protesters and struck them with batons, trapped them in the streets with no way out, pushed them to the ground, and shoved them with bikes. In Brooklyn, on May 30, an officer pulled down a man’s Covid-19 mask and pepper-sprayed him at close range, bragging about it to fellow officers but failing to provide the man with medical assistance, as required by police regulations. Days later, another officer in Brooklyn struck a protester in the back of his head while he was complying with orders to disperse, causing a gash that required ten staples. And in the Bronx, on June 4, police in riot gear corralled hundreds of people before an 8 p.m. curfew, then beat and arrested them under the watch of the department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Chief of Department Terence Monahan.
Over multiple incidents, police regularly and unjustifiably used force against peaceful protesters, with state investigators finding that they beat people with blunt instruments at least 50 times, unlawfully pepper-sprayed them in at least 30 instances, and pushed or struck protesters at least 75 times. Officers targeted and retaliated against people engaging in constitutionally protected activity, New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office concluded, and “blatantly violated the rights of New Yorkers.”
Leading the violent crackdown was the New York Police Department’s Strategic Response Group, or SRG, a heavily militarized, rapid-response unit of several hundred officers. Since its founding in 2015 to deal with public disorder events and terrorist acts, civil rights advocates have objected to the deployment of the unit to protests, and then-NYPD chief of department and later Commissioner James O’Neill pledged at the time that the SRG would “not be involved in handling protests and demonstrations.”
The pledge turned out to be hollow. That same year, the SRG was deployed against Black Lives Matter protesters. Since then, the unit’s armor-clad officers and bike squads have become a regular presence at protests, where they stand out for their confrontational and aggressive tactics. After each confrontation, complaints about the unit streamed into the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent body tasked with reviewing allegations of police abuse. Investigators found a disproportionate number of SRG officers accused of wrongdoing to have exceeded their legal authority, when compared with the wider department. The group earned a reputation among activists as the NYPD’s “goon squad.”
Inside the SRG
Despite its visibility, little is publicly known about the SRG and how its specialized officers are trained to respond to protests. Even the frequently cited number of 700 SRG officers is an estimate; the NYPD will not confirm the unit’s headcount.
Now a series of internal documents obtained by The Intercept shed new light on the police unit behind some of the most brutal repression of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The Intercept is publishing three of the public records with this story, including the SRG’s guidelines and manuals for its field force operations and bike squads.
The documents offer a comprehensive overview of how the SRG operates. They outline the unit’s responsibilities during routine assignments to precincts across the city, to which its officers are dispatched in response to spikes in crime and during special mobilizations, including to protests. The documents provide instructions regarding “mass arrest” procedures, guidelines for officers equipped with Colt M4 rifles, and directions for plainclothes, “counter-surveillance” officers tasked with shadowing tactical teams in the field.
Marked as “law enforcement sensitive” and bearing destruction notices, the documents also detail a variety of formations and maneuvers for bike squads and teams of officers on foot and in vehicles. Some of the maneuvers described in detail are variations of what the NYPD refers to as “encirclement,” the police’s name for what demonstrators call “kettling,” a technique civil rights advocates have long denounced as leading to police abuses.
Over the last months, a series of scathing reports by independent agencies condemned the NYPD’s response to the protests. The reports, which underscored the department’s lack of preparedness and officers’ poor training, contributed to a narrative that has become frequent in the wake of police abuses: that officers would have better handled such situations with better training — and thus more resources.
That narrative is complicated by the internal documents reviewed by The Intercept. Many of the policies laid out in the documents were not followed last summer or during more recent police crackdowns on protests. But the documents also raise questions about the content of police training on protest response itself. While paying lip service to protesters’ constitutional rights, the documents do little to explain how those rights should be protected, offering instead page after page of instructions on how to circumvent them.
A spokesperson for the NYPD defended the SRG’s training, which he said includes a specialized SRG Academy as well as an annual, two-day course and eight monthly, two-hour unannounced drills. Members of the SRG Bicycle Squad participate in an annual two-day refresher course, he added. In August 2020 the department expanded training on the policing of protest to all members of the service.
“The NYPD protects the Constitutional right to peaceful protest, and works to ensure public safety for any New Yorker exercising their First Amendment rights,” the spokesperson, Sergeant Edward D. Riley, wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “Many different units of the NYPD respond to major events — including protests — to ensure the safety of the public at these events.”
The NYPD documents include several drawings of tactical maneuvers as well as photos taken during police training and real-life protests, including some featuring prominent activists like Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Jose LaSalle. Overall, the SRG materials reflect a heavy-handed approach to the policing of protest and echo the war-on-terror mentality on which the unit was premised, at one point referring to protesters as potential “hostile targets.”
Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of community organizations, argued that the problem with the NYPD’s response to the protests was not so much a matter of preparedness as of culture.
“Training is the easiest thing for elected officials to call for every time there is a controversy around police violence,” she said. “That has historically never worked to actually decrease police violence, or increase the firings of officers who violate people, or increase accountability.”
The NYPD documents, which detail a clear chain of command in protest situations, also underscore how top department leadership, rather than rogue cops, bears responsibility for police actions during the protests, including the decisions to “kettle” people and resort to mass arrests. The Civilian Complaint Review Board received more than 300 allegations of police abuse in connection to the protests, and dozens of New Yorkers offered hours of harrowing public testimony about police brutality.
The incidents are now at the heart of a series of federal lawsuits against the city, including one by the New York attorney general. Nearly 450 people have also indicated their plans to sue the city individually over their treatment at the hands of police, suits that are expected to cost taxpayers millions in settlements.
The lawsuits zero in on abuses by SRG officers. In one, attorneys seeking to represent hundreds of protesters accuse the city of “deploying one particularly problematic, inadequately trained, poorly supervised and disciplined group of NYPD members: the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group.”
“SRG officers are not only inadequately trained to respond to peaceful protests,” the attorney general’s office echoed in its own complaint, “but their training in terrorism response, which necessarily requires aggressive tactics and extreme force, is almost certain to result in constitutional violations when applied to peaceful protesters.”
Critics of systemic police abuses noted that in seeking reforms to police’s protest responses, the lawsuits risk the pitfalls of previous, similar efforts that followed high-profile crackdowns on dissent and led to little substantial change.
“There’s no justice in it, there’s no real improvement,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor and the author of “The End of Policing,” who was involved in some of those earlier efforts. “It’s really hard to say that things really got any better as a result of that. They just work around it, or they just ignore it.”
The “Goon Squad”
The SRG was conceived by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first NYPD commissioner, Bill Bratton, as an elite unit to deal with both “counterterror” and civil disorder. Originally approved in 2015 as a 350-officer unit, the SRG included teams in each borough and incorporated the Disorder Control Unit, or DCU, which had been central to aggressive crackdowns on mass protests in the past. The DCU had been instrumental in policing large events like Occupy Wall Street and protests surrounding the 2004 Republican National Convention, which resulted in massive numbers of arrests and alleged abuses. The crackdown on the 2004 protests led to record legal settlements, which observers say could be surpassed by suits surrounding last summer’s uprising.
Within a year of its founding, a controversial push to expand the NYPD’s head count by 1,300 officers ended up doubling the size of the SRG. Its budget quickly ballooned from $13 million to nearly $90 million. Equipped with state-of-the-art anti-riot gear and heavy weaponry, as well as its signature fleet of bicycles and combat armor-clad riders, the SRG, a voluntary unit, attracted cops looking for “more action,” many with lengthy misconduct records. Since 2015, SRG officers have met peaceful protests with violence, failed to intervene as far-right activists assaulted counterprotesters, and participated in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man.
Despite initial reassurances to the contrary, the SRG ended up policing protests far more than it did any “counterterrorism” work — already the job of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau — but it brought its militarized mentality and tactics to the policing of civil unrest. The SRG engaged in what the unit’s guidelines refer to as “high visibility static deployment,” a show of force intended to “provide and enhance visibility at sensitive or other locations.” The unit dispatched officers donning military-style gas masks, ready for the “hazards of a weapons of mass destruction event” thanks to training in Chemical Ordinance, Biological and Radiological Awareness, or COBRA.
Organizers like Kang, of Communities United for Police Reform, opposed the formation of the SRG in its early days, not least because of the group’s conflation of protest with terrorism. That the SRG was quickly deployed to protests, despite assurances that it would not be, was to Kang emblematic of “the NYPD being able to unilaterally do whatever it wants, at any time that it wants.” Kang noted that the department faced no pushback from the administration over its broken promise and added that the City Council did not hold a hearing about the SRG until a public uproar over its role in the arrest of immigrant rights activist Ravi Ragbir by federal immigration agents in 2018.
Ultimately, Kang said, the SRG’s abuses reflected broader issues with the NYPD as a whole.
“The SRG is a symbol of the hyper-aggressive, militarized, unaccountable police violence in New York City, but that’s not exclusive to the SRG,” she said. “We have to understand this is part of the fabric of how the NYPD has historically treated protests and has historically treated Black, Latinx, and other communities of color.”