Over the last two months, the NYPD Intelligence Bureau and nationwide NYPD Operation SENTRY partners have observed numerous tactics—reflecting varying degrees of complexity—employed by anti-government extremists and violent actors targeting law enforcement amid ongoing civil unrest. Operation SENTRY is a program of the NYPD Intelligence Bureau in which hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the United States share information and investigative leads about terrorism and other threats.

The threats and tactics cited in the new report include physical targeting of officers, patrol vehicles, personal residences, and property, as well as virtual targeting through posting personal information online and cyber threats. “Recent incidents and threats targeting police officers in New York City and across the U.S. underscore the need for all uniformed members of the service to exercise increased vigilance both on- and off-duty,” the assessment states.

Click here to view the NYPD’s Tactical Assessment: https://www.policeforum.org/assets/NYPDTacticalAssessment.pdf

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Deputy Chief John Hart of the NYPD Intelligence Bureau about the report:

Chuck Wexler: Some of the risks detailed in your new report, such as fireworks and Molotov cocktails, are threats that police officers haven’t faced in recent memory.

Deputy Chief Hart:  Yes, we haven’t seen these sorts of threats recently. We’ve seen things thrown off rooftops. The direct violence towards officers associated with protests is unprecedented.

Wexler: Have there been any particular targets in New York?

Deputy Chief Hart:   I think we saw an effort to replicate what was happening in Minneapolis. Protesters saw the arson and the attack on the precinct there. On the night of Friday, May 29, there was an effort to take over the 88th Precinct in Brooklyn, which we were able to stop just in time. That was followed roughly two hours later by two Molotov cocktail attacks by two different sets of actors. One was into an occupied police van, and the other was into an unoccupied police vehicle at the 88th Precinct. It was really any police target that they could act on with a degree of impunity and hope to get away.

Wexler:  What are the lessons learned for the future?

Deputy Chief Hart:   The list is long, and we’re in the midst of an extensive after-action review of how we policed everything from the beginning. Our level of investigation into some of these more left-wing groups was limited. Like many police departments and federal agencies, we had been more focused on the right-wing groups, such as white supremacists and anti-Semitic groups.

We’re looking at how we deploy our personnel and where we park our cars. Our vehicles were strewn about. We’re a large organization and bring in officers from all over the city, so we’re thinking about how we get them there. Do we use buses? Do we put them on the subway to get back and forth to a protest?

We’ll look at how close we allow our officers to be to violent protesters. I stood in Union Square Park on the third night of this, and we were barraged by glass bottles, frozen water bottles, and things of that nature for two and a half hours. At that point we decided to monitor protests but not make the cops the show. We want to make sure we have a good fix on the protest and where it’s going, but avoid that line of confrontation when we can. That takes away the visual and de-escalates the violence. But obviously it’s difficult to avoid confrontations when people are trying to take over a building, like in Portland, Seattle, and other places.

Here in New York we don’t use tear gas, so you won’t see that like you’ve seen in other places. We have more personnel and the ability to do things without using tear gas. When you’re a smaller department, you may be forced to use other tactics to keep the cops safe and stop violent protesters from accomplishing their mission.

Wexler:  Does not using tear gas create additional challenges?

Deputy Chief Hart:   I can’t remember the last time I saw tear gas used in any manner in New York City. It requires very high-level approval. So it is available for use, but we do not use it.

We are a very densely populated city, so when you have protests, there are often a lot of uninvolved people trying to go about their lives right around the protesters. The chances of uninvolved people being injured or affected is just too great here.

That probably leads to a more physical response from us. At protest scenes over the last 10 years, we’ve certainly had our share of those kinds of engagements, including the use of the asp and mace. We’ve learned from others. Our Strategic Response group uses bikes, shields, and other equipment based on strategies we’ve seen other cities use successfully.

So those are our options, and we just don’t think our city is set up in a way that would permit the use of tear gas.

Wexler: It seems that it only takes a few violent actors within a larger peaceful protest to wreak havoc. 

Deputy Chief Hart:   That’s correct. People who are looking to do nefarious things use tactics when they form up. They like to have peaceful protests that act almost as a protective wall. It doesn’t take a large number, but there’s a lot of planning and thought that goes into it.

We had protests here with 10,000 people and had no interest in any violent action. And they can be contentious with people from the anarchist side who were looking to be violent. I’ve walked through protests and heard large groups of people saying, “We’re not here for that. We don’t want that.”

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Deputy Chief Hart:   There are a lot of various elements that went into the surge in demonstrations here. There are a lot of political efforts, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing. There are anti-COVID mask and pro-mask sentiments. People were stuck in their houses for three months and found what they believe to be a good reason to protest. I think all that played out, and we saw frustration and anger. The police became the target of a lot of different types of anger.

I would urge elected officials to use a lot more caution in how they support protests and act on these things, particularly with the rush to pass laws without careful consideration. We’re a department that’s built on reform and I think NYPD is known for that. And I think that’s true of a lot of police departments around the country. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.