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UNGA Week in New York: Checkpoints, Checkpoints, Checkpoints

Kathy Barrie pushed her way to the front of a security checkpoint, grasping a piece of white paper with her name and address on it: a letter of residency proving she lives inside the United Nations security perimeter.

The police officer waved her through. As a 30 year resident, she knows security is tight every year for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

"This is the most security I can recall other than 911, when it was a very different situation," she says. "It's inconvenient but it's thrilling. The convergence of Putin, Obama, all the heads of government coming here at once is amazing. We just got out of a cab and decided to walk the final three blocks."

This year, a record 170 world leaders chose to attend the opening of the United Nations. Protecting them, managing street closures and manning checkpoints falls to the New York Police Department (NYPD), whose Sergeant Frank Viscione coordinates every special event.

"This is a big year. We've had days when we've had hundreds of motorcades traveling back and forth and that’s a lot of work in itself to coordinate the motorcades around Manhattan," he said. "And if you are familiar with Manhattan, getting around Manhattan isn’t all that easy, [but] I think we’ve done a good job. It’s really strained our resources, which are pretty extensive."

The NYPD, with 35,000 sworn officers, is one of the biggest in the United States and larger than the armies of some countries that send their leaders to the UNGA. But even with those numbers, overcoming cultural differences and language barriers requires some extra help.

“It takes a lot of preparation," says Farhan Haq, spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary General. "We discuss the choreography in March and April. There are a lot of different hurdles to go through just to get into the building. That’s to insure the security and the safety of the many, many leaders who are here.”

Mursel Yalbuzdag, who runs Ali Baba Terrace, a Turkish restaurant beside a security checkpoint, says people try to walk into his restaurant and out the side door to slip past security. While he doesn’t allow it, he says he welcomes all the additional business.

"What can I say? It's good for us," he says. "But the security is getting crazy with all the problems around the world."

Sergeant Viscione says he will rest for one day after the diplomats leave. Big events don't pause for any of New York’s City finest, and UNGA is just one in a series of high-profile activities that dictate his life.

"This is Manhattan. It doesn't stop here. We have a large parade on Sunday, a large parade on Saturday. We are getting into the big Columbus parades in October... the big Halloween parades... the elections are coming. Before I know it, it will be the Thanksgiving parade and New Year’s Eve," he says. "That’s my calendar. I just go from event to event to event."

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.