Police are rolling out brand new armored vehicles and state-of-the-art surveillance technology to protect New York City during the upcoming Republican National Convention. Several thousand delegates will gather in Manhattan to officially nominate President Bush for re-election, and thousands more plan to protest amid a heightened state of security as officials try to prevent terrorist attacks. Security officials have spent 18 months preparing for just about any possibility.
Chemical attacks, violent protesters, assaults from the air - all have been carefully considered by a multitude of federal, state and local agencies. Together, they are seeking to provide the highest level of protection for New York City when the Republicans come to town.
Some of the equipment police will be using is bulky, like the shiny black armored vehicle the New York City Police Department calls "the Bear Cat." It looks like a sleek tank on wheels, and has shatter-proof glass windows and a bullet-proof exterior. The vehicle, just one month old, is designed to carry up to eight officers straight into a hostile environment.
Other tools, like those for detection and surveillance, are discreet. One is a clear plastic dish, the size of two coins, with a snap-off cover. It looks like a contact lens carrier, but chemical agent officer Walter Schlichting says it's a sophisticated test for airborne nerve agents. "What you do is you put water onto this, you wave it in the air for about two minutes, then you break this off, this will break off, you put a drop water on there and you set it right back into it and you just hold it there for about another two minutes. When you pop it off, if it's green then it means it's good. If it's a reddish color then it means there is some kind of nerve agent in the air," he says.
Another innovation is a camera system, set up by the Federal Protective Service, a government security organization. Some 200 officers will have tiny video cameras installed on their helmets. The footage those cameras capture is fed to a mobile command unit, so a control team can see everything the officers are seeing, in real time. Commanding officers in the field can also check the video feed by looking at wireless handheld devices that can switch between several different viewpoints at once.
All the security information gets fed through what is called a "multi-agency control center," which operates 24-hours a day.
The Secret Service is overseeing the entire effort, which involves state and local authorities and dozens of federal agencies, including the FBI, Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency. U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge says security plans are comprehensive. "Of course, due to the sensitive nature of security operations, many of these details will remain classified. However, New Yorkers and convention participants should know that we have put a tremendous amount of advance planning and coordination into the areas of venue protection, airspace security, communications, emergency equipment, credentialing and training," he says.
New York City has also established a seven-mile restricted flight zone around Manhattan, and helicopter teams will keep watch over the city from above. Officials say some officers will be carrying chemical suits that are packed into compact bundles, so they can put them on at a moment's notice. Others will be ready to grab power saws, hydraulic drills, air tanks, radioactivity detectors and protective gear from police emergency services trucks, which carry all kinds of equipment for rescue or tactical situations. Bomb sniffing dogs will be on hand to assist the effort.
To send a message that New York is prepared, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says heavily armed police officers are already increasing their presence at the site of the convention, Madison Square Garden, several days before the event is scheduled to begin. "That deployment, like some of the other security measures instituted as the convention nears, is intended to be highly visible. For the same reason, New Yorkers will also see patrols by the NYPD Hercules team at sensitive locations and landmarks," he says.
Police received their first test on Thursday, when about a dozen AIDS activists ran into the street outside Madison Square Garden. Bearing no high-tech weaponry, these protesters just took off their clothes and brought traffic to a complete standstill.
A local New York television reporter described the scene live, saying "the protesters appear to be on the ground, resisting arrest from what I can see here. We have another camera angle that is closer to the scene. Again this is the group 'Act Up.' It is an AIDS organization, and now police cars are coming down. I can't believe they haven't been arrested as of yet. Okay, now they are in handcuffs. We apologize if any of the video is graphic but these people are naked."
The demonstrators had painted "Drop the Debt" on their backs, protesting what they called the Bush administration's failure to relieve massive debts owed by many African countries, especially nations that are struggling with the AIDS epidemic.
The protesters were arrested, and witnesses said they appeared to be treated fairly by police. Officials expect many more demonstrations in the coming days, and they say they are ready.