Inside the NYPD’s counter terrorism unit

September 8, 2011

When our photo staff began to plan for the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it was difficult to know where coverage should begin. The first story that came to mind is how Ground Zero has changed. It has been remarkable to watch the buildings being constructed. Not only have we seen them rise above ground level, but slowly surpass the height of every other building in lower Manhattan. Colleagues of mine have done a wonderful job of documenting the evolution of the site and the reactions of those around it, but while that might be the most obvious story to tell, it was not the most profound change that I feel has taken place in New York since the attacks. For me, the most significant modification is that security has become omnipresent in the city.

Security has emerged as a fact of life here. When we fly we have to take off our shoes and throw away our water bottles. Every commercial building in New York has a security team and identification is required to get to work. The speakers in the subway system continually remind us that “if you see something, say something” and photographing a building that lies in full view of the public is considered a suspicious activity. While this all might seem like an Orwellian society in which “Big Brother” is constantly looking down upon us, it is necessary to remember that New York has been the target of two major successful attacks, one foiled attack, and unknown numbers of prevented attacks since the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

The most visual way to show this shift in New York’s security is to document the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) counter terrorism units. According to their website, the Counter Terrorism Bureau of the NYPD was created by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in 2002 as a direct response to the realization that the city could not rely solely on the federal government for the safety of it’s citizens. The department’s counter terrorism units are the result of the NYPD’s evolution from being a purely domestic reactionary police force to their current manifestation as the primary preventative law enforcement agency for New York City. While the average New Yorker has seen a gradual change in how the department operates since September 11, what is different may not be readily apparent. This photo essay is an attempt to show the many tasks that this section of the NYPD performs in their effort to safeguard the city.

The Critical Response Vehicle (CRV) deployments and Hercules teams were both begun by the NYPD almost immediately after the attacks of September 11. They remain an active part of the counter terror regimen today. A CRV deployment consists of dozens of patrol cars flashing their lights while driving through predetermined routes in the city. Officers from each borough come together to plan the deployment beforehand and the entire operation is often seen driving through highly trafficked areas.

The Hercules teams are one of the most strikingly visual units in the NYPD. These teams consist of an intelligence officer, a canine unit, a highway patrol unit and a small squad of heavily armed police officers who travel throughout the city. They are meant to work as both a method of keeping the teams prepared in case of an emergency and as a visual reminder that the NYPD is present and prepared for the worst case scenario. The locations that the CRV and Hercules teams visit can be randomly selected or, in some cases, specifically chosen because of intelligence that the department has about potential threats. The public’s reaction to these units ranges from being alarmed to feeling comforted by their presence to wondering “which celebrity is shopping in Whole Foods?”

In order to protect the roughly five million daily commuters who utilize the New York subway, the NYPD has activated a number of strategies to safeguard a system seen as particularly vulnerable since the bombings in London and Madrid.

Teams of officers randomly perform Transit Order Maintenance Sweeps (TOMS) in which every car on a train is checked for suspicious activity or packages by a team of officers coordinating with the subway personnel. Transit Operation Response Canine Heavy weapons units work throughout the system as the highly visible subterranean version of the Hercules teams. Teams of NYPD officers are also routinely tasked with working at controversial bag checking stations which randomly select members of the public in order to use portable explosive detection machines on their baggage. All of these activities are spread throughout the system and deployed either randomly or when intelligence deems extra protection could be required.

In a direct response to the attacks on Mumbai in 2008, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly deemed it necessary to have a larger pool of NYPD personnel trained in urban assault tactics. The decision was made that highly trained Emergency Service Units (ESU) would need additional help if there were concurrent attacks at several different locations within the city. Officers from the Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB) were chosen to receive additional training in the event of a coordinated attack on multiple locations and are routinely trained by ESU units at a specially designed training facility in the city.

Recently, as a response to the threat of a dirty bomb, the NYPD updated their methods of detecting unusual levels of radiation by combining their radiation monitoring systems and GPS mapping. This allows officers to know whether or not certain signals are irregular or part of the normal city environment providing a more accurate defense against this type of threat. The hardware used in detection is routinely deployed in NYPD helicopters and on two specialized vessels that carry counter terror personnel while working with Harbor Patrol in New York Harbor.

Lastly, the department has in recent years worked very hard to increase their ability to monitor large areas of midtown and lower Manhattan with electronic video surveillance. The official term for this system and the officers tasked to monitor it is the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative. This ability for the NYPD to keep a watchful eye over highly trafficked or financially important areas is considered an important addition to the department’s more traditional assets.

At the center of these adaptations is Police Commissioner Ray Kelly who has been at the helm of the NYPD since 2002. Kelly created the Counter Terror bureau and according to the NYPD has established a departmental presence in eleven foreign countries and within organizations like the New Scotland Yard and Interpol. The NYPD is the only municipal police department in the United States to have this global reach. There is an upward flow of information from local police officers, intelligence officers tasked specifically with gathering information, the FBI and CIA directly to the Commissioner’s office. This emphasis of shared information and direct communication has been an anchor in the modifications made to the NYPD since September 11, 2001.

For residents of New York City the presence of these NYPD Counter Terrorism units can trigger emotions that range from creating alarm or anger to bringing a sense of safety and comfort. Regardless of the emotion it provokes the simple fact remains that the NYPD is constantly adapting and updating themselves to prevent and respond effectively to an attack or large-scale emergency. My hope is that this essay stands as a window into their world. It is my attempt to show the NYPD’s exertion and preparation that is part of protecting the citizens of New York City.

(View a slideshow of images here)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Wish the Indian Police force had the capability to have something like this. It’s an incredible feat that there has been no terrorist attack on US soil after 9/11. Whereas India on the other hand, just keeps on getting plummeted with attack after attack and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Posted by IndiaAlive | Report as abusive

I remember watching the 9/11 attacks on the TV with my Mum as they happened. In Ireland, far away from the danger, I still felt the shock of what was happening. While it was happening, I dug out some photographs that I had taken, both inside and on top of the WTC, almost a year exactly prior to the attack, when I was visiting NY with some friends. It was eerie to say the least…

One of the most prominent memories of that trip was how safe I felt in New York, I constantly recall how safe it felt to walk around, even late at night, with the occasional glimpse of a friendly NYPD officer patrolling the street to make me feel even safer. It certainly was the city that never sleeps…

The sad thing is that it probably feels a lot different there now. I have not been back in NY since the attacks, but I guess it must feel a bit strange now, and probably always will. After the attacks and the likes of this story depicting the measure that have occurred to protect the city and its citizens, maybe its not the city that never sleeps any more. Maybe now its the city that is afraid to sleep, and that certainly is saddening…

New Yorkers and Americans, I am sad that this has happened to your city and that you have been hurt so badly. From Ireland, God bless you all tomorrow…


Posted by RonanH | Report as abusive