The New York City Police Department failed to show up at a City Council hearing to discuss the actions of the force’s controversial Strategic Response Group, based on W42nd Street, angering many Council Members who argued that the unit not only violates civilian rights through brute enforcement but disregards responsibility for allegations of misconduct.
The NYPD was asked to attend an oversight hearing by the Committee for Public Safety on Wednesday to discuss the SRG’s past and future role in public protests as well as significant public criticism that the unit is a “dangerous and unaccountable arm of the NYPD” — but declined to participate, opting instead to send a letter from director of legislative affairs Michael Clarke.
Clarke stated that the NYPD would not be attending the hearing due to legal concerns over pending lawsuits over police misconduct. He defended the unit as “highly trained, well vetted and professional police officers [who] as a whole maintained their professionalism throughout what were often incredibly challenging and dynamic events” of 2020’s police brutality protests (The New York Times).
The SRG was originally formed as a counter-terrorism unit in 2015, based out of the Manhattan South Task Force building located at 524 W42nd Street before the headquarters rebranded as the Strategic Response Group. In 2020, a specialist bike team from the SRG was seen chasing protesters down in Midtown during protests against police brutality. Yesterday’s hearing occurred on the same day that the city agreed to pay $21.5K to the approximately 300 protesters – including medics, legal observers and journalists who were corralled and trapped on June 4, 2020 by the police, with an additional $2,500 to those who were also arrested.
There was audible unrest in the council chambers when City Council Member Kamillah Hanks, Chair of the Committee of Public Safety, announced that the NYPD would not be attending. “I know,” she responded to mutters around the chamber before stating: “It is essential that NYPD’s response to protests strike a balance between free speech and protecting public safety.”
The NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) – who recently released a report recommending an overhaul of the force’s protest tactics — did attend the oversight hearing, where they were subject to a pointed line of questioning and statements from City Council Members, who condemned the NYPD’s absence and actions as disrespectful. “It’s a slap in the face,” said City Council Member Jennifer Gutierrez, adding, “The entire agency of the CCRB exists due to the acknowledgment that the NYPD abuses its power.”
“I held out hope that they would attend,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. “I think it is a shameful affront to this council and to the city as a whole. I think that just being present at this hearing would show respect to this process.” He added: “The SRG’s involvement with protests seems to be more about suppressing free speech than keeping people safe.”
“This is deeply embarrassing for this administration,” said Council Member Shahana Hanif. “In a ‘city of yes,’ the NYPD continues to say ‘no’, and I don’t know how they get to get away with that.” She added, “Yet our funds for education, supportive housing, and healthcare get slashed and divested. This is humiliating because this is not the first attempt we’ve made to host the NYPD. We are deeply embarrassed that the NYPD refuses to respond to our questions.”
Several council members felt that the SRG should be dissolved altogether, with funds allocated for the unit distributed to form alternate methods of crowd control. “It is time to disband the SRG and redistribute its funds to evidence-based safety strategies,” said City Council Member Tiffany Cabán. “The NYPD should pay out for its own misconduct – that should not come out of taxpayer dollars,” added Council Member Alexa Avilés.
Council Members Robert Holden and Joann Ariola of Queens argued that a specialized unit was needed to protect communities and the police from violence. “These SRG officers are there to help precincts that are in need,” said Council Member Ariola. “When we’re getting everyday notifications of gun violence in our precincts, in our communities, and our people are dying, we cannot lessen the amount of officers we have deployed.”
“My colleagues from Queens have never been to a Black Lives Matter protest, so they can’t really judge that – and they are making judgments from what they see on Fox News,” retorted Council Member Chi Ossé, who before the hearing had joined the City Council’s newly reduced Progressive Caucus to demand that the SRG disband, branding their actions during protests unconstitutional.
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“Our first amendment right within the Constitution allows us to protest and assemble whenever we want,” City Council Member Ossé said. “And the fact that the SRG is deployed to brutalize and disband folks exercising their First Amendment rights is once again anti-constitutional and criminal.”
W42ST reached out to the NYPD for comment and a spokesperson told us: “While the 2020 protests in New York City occurred nearly three years ago under a different administration, the NYPD remains committed to publicly discussing the events of that challenging period, including the practices of the department’s Strategic Response Group. Unfortunately, doing so at today’s City Council hearing was not possible, as was made clear to the council over the last two months. The NYPD is actively engaged in litigation and negotiations that touch directly on the SRG and the court has issued a gag order directing confidentiality in the matter. That means the NYPD’s expert witnesses – those whose voices would be most valuable in the ongoing public dialogue – remain barred from speaking. While the NYPD submitted written testimony, we look forward to the opportunity to discuss this matter further at the conclusion of litigation.”