By Isabelle Leyva
In May, New Yorkers took to the streets in the wake of the killing of Jordan Neely, who was choked to death by fellow subway rider Daniel Penny on May 1. Protesters showed up to demand accountability for Neely’s killing and to call for the City to invest in necessities like mental health care and housing.
NYPD officers showed up prepared for battle and have been aggressively cracking down on protests ever since. The leading force behind the Department’s especially belligerent response toward demonstrators is the Strategic Response Group. The SRG is a notoriously violent rapid response unit within the NYPD that has beaten and harassed protesters for years, while costing taxpayers $133 million annually.
As New Yorkers call for more money for services desperately needed by our City’s most vulnerable, protesters are being forced into submission by a unit that costs taxpayers more than $100 million every year.
In the week after Neely was killed, at least 30 New Yorkers were arrested at protests related to his death. The NYPD set the tone when they deployed the SRG to rush protesters and make several arrests at a vigil on May 3. Eleven people were arrested, including well-known journalist Stephanie Keith.
What started as a vigil turned into a march to the precinct where arrestees were being taken. Throngs of SRG officers followed, threatening to arrest anyone who stepped into the roadway. The NYPD continued to escalate, even as the small group of protesters merely stood on the sidewalk outside the precinct. The NYPD then made another round of arrests, taking two protest organizers into custody as they sat on the sidewalk awaiting the release of those held inside.
Over the last three years, NYCLU protest monitors have seen protesters routinely demonstrate on roadways, bridges, and sidewalks. But since May 1, NYCLU monitors have documented the NYPD’s more aggressive crackdown on New Yorkers’ ability to demonstrate. Protesters have been threatened with arrest for entering the roadway or using sound devices like bullhorns. This is a marked shift from the typical patterns of protest policing and is reminiscent of the Department’s hyper-aggressive response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
Most recently, the NYPD arrested four people at a “march for trans revolution” in Washington Square Park, where the NYPD prevented protesters from entering the roadway and then issued arrests as protesters marched on the sidewalk. Among those arrested were prominent trans activist Qween Jean and a member of the press. In all the NYPD’s escalations we’ve seen over the last month, the SRG played a central role.
Established in 2015, the unit is known for its misconduct, racial bias, and abuse of protesters. Initially created for counter-terrorism, the SRG quickly morphed into the violent protest policing unit it is today. Starting with a budget of $13 Million, then ballooning to $90 Million in its first year, the current estimated cost of the SRG is $133 million per year—or roughly $364,000 per day.
For more than a year, a coalition of 70-plus organizations and 1,000 campaign volunteers has demanded accountability, transparency, and the disbandment of the SRG. The campaign’s first demand was a City Council oversight hearing to shine a light on the unit’s abuse.
After two postponements, the City Council finally held an oversight hearing on the SRG on March 1 of this year. The goal of the hearing was to give New Yorkers the opportunity to testify about their experiences with the unit and allow Council Members to question the NYPD about the unit’s budget, conduct, and structure.
But NYPD representatives refused to attend, blaming their absence on a non-existent gag order. For more than four hours, New Yorkers testified about the harm and trauma the SRG has inflicted on our communities. The Department refused to listen or answer questions from elected officials.
During a subsequent budget hearing on March 20, more than 100 New Yorkers waited for hours to submit testimony. Though the NYPD did attend this time, Department officials again refused to answer questions from the Council about the SRG.
During the May 24 Executive Budget hearing, dozens more New Yorkers waited 10 hours to testify to the City Council about why the SRG must be disbanded. While the hearing was taking place, the SRG was a few blocks away arresting non-violent protesters at a “care not criminalization” march.
The NYPD doesn’t run New York City. The Department must be held to the same standard of accountability as every other agency, and our leaders shouldn’t be funding abusive units within a department that refuses to submit to the authority of the City Council. SRG officers know they can brutalize protesters one day, and face no consequences the next, all while funding for other City departments is constantly on the chopping block.
As the Council and Mayor Adams negotiate an annual budget this month, there is no excuse for cutting critical services while showering tens of millions of dollars on the NYPD to fund a unit that abuses New Yorkers.
The escalation that we’ve seen over the last few weeks only underscores the urgent need to disband the SRG and reinvest its funds into our communities.
Hundreds of our community members have testified to the City Council to make this point. They have opened emotional wounds describing the physical and psychological damage that the SRG has inflicted, and they have said what three years of documentation proves to be true—that the SRG does not keep us safe.
If public safety is the true priority for the City Council, members should disband a unit that threatens the safety and First Amendment rights of their constituents. They should take the SRG’s budget and reinvest those funds into our communities and into programs that actually keep us safe. New Yorkers need housing, health care, and social services. They don’t need militarized police that attack community members with impunity.
New Yorkers have spoken. It’s time for our elected officials to hear us.
Isabelle Leyva is a Field Organizer with the NYCLU.