UNGA 2021: How the NYPD protects world leaders and city residents

The NYPD counter-terrorism division, with its far-reaching intelligence network and integrated command centre, didn't exist until after 9/11

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At the corner of 47th Street and 1st Avenue, a New York City police officer in full combat gear grips a military-grade assault rifle as he guards the UN headquarters behind him. A caravan of blue NYPD police cars and black SUVs, carrying some of the world's most powerful decision-makers, whizzes past.

A young mother blithely pushes a pram across the intersection, past the bomb squad and sniffing dogs, oblivious to any potential terror threats or her proximity to any world leaders or visiting crown princes that may have entered her orbit.

The officer, however, is not — though he's only one piece of a multilayered puzzle, put together by the NYPD over decades, that is designed to protect everyday people along with leaders and dignitaries from around the globe.

“When you [prepare] for an event, you got to think of normal police things — traffic, crowds, having the city residents move around the event, but there’s also what we call the counter-terrorism overlay,” said John Miller, the deputy commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism at the NYPD.

“How many layers depends on the threat assessment.”

For an event like UN General Assembly, the NYPD works dozens of angles, patrolling the streets on foot, on horseback and in vehicles, some of them armoured. The East River, which flows behind the UN complex, is patrolled not only by city police but by the US Coastguard as well.

Even the airspace above is monitored. In addition to the department's vast array of advanced technologies and manpower, it also maintains a counter-drone programme designed to protect against possible attacks by air.

“We will have bomb squad teams on the ground so if a backpack or a package turns up suddenly somewhere, we don’t have to shut down the event, '' Mr Miller told The National.

“We can create a wide perimeter and we can handle it immediately and make a quick assessment.”

Before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks that destroyed the World Trade Centre and killed more than 2,600 people in New York, the NYPD did not have a counter-terrorism unit. Different law enforcement agencies rarely, if ever, communicated and they certainly never shared intelligence.

The New York City skyline, featuring the UN building. Holly Aguirre / The National

In the 20 years since the attacks, the NYPD has developed perhaps the most robust counter-terrorism programme, within a police force, in the world.

“We realised that it was a new world that we were entering after 9/11,” said Joseph Gallucci, deputy chief of counterterrorism.

The police are constantly analysing their performance as well as adapting and adjusting in real time to events going on around them.

In addition to more than 1,000 personnel in the US who are specially trained in a host of special weapons, explosive detection, radiological and nuclear awareness, behavioural analysis, and other skills, they have agents spread out across the globe in Paris, London, Tel Aviv, Amman and elsewhere.

“They are sitting there with their police colleagues in those places, exchanging information, perspectives, analysis about how to stop terrorism,” said Mr Miller.

All that analysis and intelligence is funnelled back to a command centre at One Police Plaza that is continuously monitoring the threat level in the city.

Inside the command centre, officers from the counter-terrorism unit sit side-by-side with colleagues from the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, ATF and many other law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

That sharing of space and information is one of the most important elements to come out of 9/11.

It’s all a carefully choreographed process, but the department knows it is a near impossible task to be perfect all the time.

“We do the best we can,” Mr Gallucci told The National, while standing outside the UN observing his officers at work.

Dog day afternoon

Meanwhile, a 40-kilogram black lab named Bobby and his team of handlers search the perimeter of the UN complex, sniffing out anything suspicious.

The NYPD canine programme now includes vapour-wake dogs trained to re

cognise the smell of explosive material.

Mr Miller explained that they are trained to prevent attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing. In 2013, two brothers smuggled home-made pressure cooker bombs in backpacks to the finish line of the race, killing three people and wounding more than 260 others.

Bobby might have prevented that.

The dogs might not know it, but they are another of the value-added elements keeping The City That Never Sleeps safe, night and day.

Updated: September 23, 2021, 7:22 PM