You would think that several hundred thousand angry demonstrators in New York City for the Republican convention would be a policeman’s worst nightmare. You would be wrong. “The demonstrators are kind of self-deluded, thinking that they’re the primary focus of our concern and planning,” one high-ranking member of the Police Department told me.
“We want them to come, exercise their rights, and have a good time,” he continued. “But I assure you that we have more important things to worry about than a bunch of wannabe revolutionaries and anarchists. They’re amateurs. It’s the professionals, the terrorists, that we’re focused on.”
In fact, the challenge of the Republicans’ four-day party for Commissioner Ray Kelly is its almost unimaginable complexity. It will draw nearly 50,000 conventioneers. Plus 15,000 journalists and perhaps as many as 250,000 demonstrators for the opening march on August 29. On top of that, the U.S. Open will be in progress, and both the Yankees and the Mets are home. The U.S. Open alone is a two-week, 646-cop detail out of the 112th Precinct.
The president, the vice-president, and high-ranking members of the Cabinet and Congress will be here. And while the whole world watches, everyone will have to be protected, order will have to be maintained, and all of it will have to be done while ensuring some semblance of normalcy for the rest of the city.
Strategically, the convention presents two starkly different problems for the NYPD: the protesters and the terrorists. One group is a messy, unwieldy celebration of democracy and freedom, while the other is a full-frontal attack on those very same values. “No other police department in the world can protect the Republicans and this convention the way we can,” says Kelly, looking fit and powerful in a double-breasted pinstripe suit, white shirt, and a .38 in his ankle holster.
It is the start of a rainy evening, and Kelly has perched himself on the edge of a voluminous leather easy chair in his fourteenth-floor office at police headquarters, to talk about his department’s preparations.
“You have to remember something where the demonstrators are concerned,” he says. “We have a track record working with these groups.”
At every event—including the peaceful antiwar protest held here this past March and the less peaceful one last year that left 17 cops injured and 91 protesters in jail—the cops pick up tips, refine their strategy, and study the protesters’ tactics. The NYPD has developed what would be referred to in Washington as a robust intelligence capability. “We had people in Miami last November for the Free Trade protests,” says assistant chief Jack McManus, the officer coordinating the NYPD’s convention strategy. “We’ve met with the Democratic convention organizers in Boston, and we’ll send people to the G-8 summit in June in Sea Island, Georgia.”
Kelly and his department are well aware of the kinds of tactical weaponry protesters have used in recent years: marbles and bolts spread out on the ground for cops to slip on. Slingshots used to launch batteries (and the marbles or bolts). Fishing line to trip horses and dogs. Molotov cocktails. Tiki torches to set nuisance fires. Super-soakers filled with vinegar, gasoline, or urine. “At other events,” Kelly says, “protesters have also sent out scouts with walkie-talkies to find weak spots in police formations or in the protection around certain potential targets.”
Disruptions have been achieved using the “sweeping dragon,” a formation where dozens of protesters lock arms—which they protect and make difficult to unlink by covering them with PVC piping—and block traffic. This general tactic is called “swarming,” and it is also accomplished with large numbers of people on bicycles. Havoc can be created by flooding the 911 system with calls. “Demonstrators have also used the tactic of faking injury after arrests,” Kelly says, “so they can bog down ambulances.”
Particularly frightening in the current climate is the use of hoax devices—suitcases or backpacks or other items that look like bombs and are left at various locations around the city. Simply phoning in bomb threats is a commonly used variation of this.
At the end of this month, the cops will begin to drill for these and other possibilities. “You have to have the right equipment at the right place at the right time,” the commissioner says. “We will use our aviation assets so we can spot groups forming up to do some of these things.”
He stresses the importance of training and preparation for mega-events like the convention, but says this is also a case where size matters. When the World Trade Organization met in Seattle, there were 40,000 demonstrators and 1,000 cops. New York has nearly 40,000 cops, and every commander knows that sheer size is their most potent weapon.
“We have the capacity to mass whatever force is necessary,” says Kelly, who made several presentations to the Republican National Committee to help sell it on New York. “Unity of command is critical in these situations, and only we can provide it. In other places, they have to call in people from different jurisdictions. They have to deputize people. We don’t have to do that.”