And a similar unit cannot rise in its place.
If you’ve attended a racial justice protest in New York City, you’re likely familiar with the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group. Whether you know it by name or recognize them as police officers donning tactical gear and helmets, the SRG has become a staple of protest policing, best known for its rampant abuse of protesters. In 2021, the NYCLU and more than 50 organizations from across the state launched a campaign to disband the SRG and reinvest its funds into our communities. There’s no place for the SRG’s brand of violent policing in New York and we must demand that the City Council Public Safety Committee hold an oversight hearing on the unit this month.
While it was founded in 2015 as a counter-terrorism unit, from its inception, the SRG’s mission conflated protest and terrorism. Within its first year, the SRG doubled in size, and its budget increased from $13 to $90 million. Seven years later, the SRG functions almost entirely as a violent protest-policing unit. With more funding, more equipment, and almost no transparency about the unit’s cost or function, the SRG has become one of the most dangerous and unaccountable arms of the NYPD.
My personal experience with the SRG began on May 29th of 2020, when I joined thousands of New Yorkers who took to the streets after the murder of George Floyd. On that first day of protests, we were met with hordes of NYPD officers prepared for battle. Donning riot gear, with batons in hand, the NYPD brutally beat and arrested dozens of protesters. Unfortunately, this was a mere glimpse of what was to come that summer.
That June, the NYCLU relaunched its protest monitoring program as a way to track and document police conduct. Through this program, I train volunteers to collect footage and document police conduct at protests across the city. Two years later, our protest monitors have collected documentation at more than 150 protests.
Throughout the summer of 2020, I spent almost every day on the ground at protests, both as a monitor and a protester. During those months, I would come to experience nearly every one of the SRG’s tactics: from being pepper sprayed and beaten with batons, to being trapped by brigades of body armor-clad police with nowhere to run. And still, the violence that I experienced pales in comparison to the police’s disproportionate brutalization of Black and Brown protesters. Police treat them like enemy combatants instead of people protesting for their right to safety.
Our protest monitors’ documentation confirmed what I, and many others, already knew: the SRG was central to the police violence we were seeing on the ground. Between May of 2020 and January of 2021, our monitors documented 39 instances of police arresting non-violent protesters, 23 incidents of kettling (trapping protesters for arrest), and 25 instances of use of force, including pepper spray, baton beatings, and use of bicycles as weapons. Countless more incidents occurred, some documented by other protest monitoring groups and many unaccounted for.
The SRG was present and participated in every instance of kettling, every instance of arrest, and all but one instance of use of force we documented. At best, the SRG was an escalating force. At worst, it was the source of violence. This isn’t by coincidence. It’s by design.
The SRG’s training manuals overwhelmingly focus on crowd control and use of force, with almost no mention of First Amendment protections or de-escalation. Despite the NYPD’s insistence that the Department does not engage in kettling, the SRG manual includes an identical tactic called “encirclement.”
The SRG is a voluntary unit, reportedly attracting officers looking for “more action.” When you combine this with a virtually limitless budget, biased training, and no oversight over how the SRG is being used, you are left with a militarized arm of the NYPD made up of officers with disproportionately high rates of misconduct complaints, who can be deployed anywhere the Department sees fit.
Recently, the SRG has been deployed to enforce cruel homeless encampment sweeps across the city. In April, while the man who opened fire on the subway was standing outside a bodega downtown, the SRG was a few blocks away destroying the belongings of unhoused people during a sweep at Tompkins Square Park. Its officers are also a regular presence at the “NYC for Abortion Rights’” monthly clinic defense, where they consistently target pro-abortion access demonstrators.
Targeting pro-abortion demonstrators is just one example of the SRG’s apparent bias. Time and time again, we have seen the SRG allow white supremacist and far-right groups to protest without interference, while brutally cracking down on racial justice and left-wing protesters.
This, too, is by design. In the SRG Bike Squad manual, the examples given for “violent crowds” are “BLM, anti-Trump demonstrators, and “Occupy Wall Street.” This bias goes beyond the SRG’s policing of protests; of all complaints made against SRG officers that included race between 2015 and 2021, 91 percent of victims were people of color.
It’s clear the only way to end the unit’s abuse is to put an end to the SRG itself. I spoke to partner organizations, reached out to community organizers, and began hosting community forums where directly impacted people could come together to discuss their experiences and their vision of justice and community safety. Participants resoundingly supported putting an end to the SRG. From there, the campaign to disband the SRG was born.
The NYPD often “disbands” problematic units only to recreate them by a different name. It is vital that our demands not only make the SRG obsolete but also ensure that no unit like it exists in our community. To do that, we must take the SRG’s funds from the hands of the NYPD altogether. Along with more than 50 organizations from across the state, we’ve called on the City Council to do just that: remove the SRG’s funds through the city budget process.
An oversight hearing by the City Council Public Safety Committee would give victims the opportunity to testify about their experience, and would allow members of the campaign to disband the SRG to ask direct questions to the NYPD about the function and deployment of the unit.
The trauma inflicted by the SRG is impossible to quantify. The reverberations of the SRG’s abuse of protesters is felt by its victims, their loved ones, and our broader community. We deserve better. We deserve accountability. We deserve action. The City Council has the power to put an end to the SRG’s abuse, and we have the power to demand a city free from the threat of militarized, state-sanctioned violence.
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