NEW YORK — On a sweltering summer night, in midtown Manhattan, a group of New York police officers stood at the stairway of a subway station as commuters streamed in and out and pedestrians strolled by. Some of the cops had rifles slung over their shoulders, the barrels pointed down. They wore heavy vests, and the sweat poured off them.
New Yorkers don’t give it a second thought. Since 9/11, cops with rifles on city sidewalks have been a small but persistent part of the urban tapestry.
Their number has slowly climbed, in response not just to the threat of terrorism, but the targeting of police officers here and elsewhere. The 2014 assassination of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn still resonates here.
“He was in the academy with Ramos,” one of the heavily armed cops says, nodding toward another, who was shooting the breeze with a German tourist.
The more recent shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have left some cops here more uneasy. Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, doesn’t mince words. He says the average New York cop is “woefully unprepared” to protect himself or herself, or the public, from an attacker armed with a rifle.
Lynch says it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect precinct cops armed with 9 mm pistols and vests that can stop only a round from a handgun to face down attackers who may be armed with assault rifles, body armor, explosives, and military training.
As unions representing Boston police push for more protective gear and powerful weapons, New York offers an interesting case study. Like his counterparts in Boston, Lynch has been calling for more rifles and ballistic helmets and vests that can stop a rifle round. The New York union has been demanding better gear since the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.
In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner Bill Evans are wary of putting more rifles in police hands. Here in New York, there’s been more of a compromise. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton are providing more protective gear for all patrol officers, and a small, tactical increase in the number of highly trained specialty unit officers armed with rifles.
Bratton is wary of arming most patrol officers with rifles, too, not merely because of the optics. He said it’s not practical to arm every officer. Training is time-consuming, intense, and takes police officers off the streets. Officers assigned to the elite units that carry rifles spend an average of 35 hours a year in training, or about a week off the streets.
“We’ve tried to strike a balance,” Bratton said, “by optimizing officer safety with the heavy ballistic vests and helmets, and by having more specialty units that can respond to an active shooter situation in minutes.”
The NYPD just spent $7.5 million on protective equipment for patrol officers, including 7-pound ballistic vests and helmets. Over the next month, 6,000 vests that can stop a rifle round will be assigned to 3,000 patrol cars across the city. In addition, patrol officers will be provided with 20,000 helmets, like the one that saved the life of a police officer whose helmet was struck during the shootout with the man who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub in June.
The vests and helmets are designed for “active shooter” situations and won’t be worn on routine patrol.
“We’re fortunate to have the financial support from the mayor and all of city government to make this happen,” Bratton said.
Since 2014, NYPD has spent more than $320 million on new gear and training, including the M-4 rifles that the cops were holding at the subway entrance Sunday night. Adding more rifles to the arsenal of any urban police department is contentious, but the New York experience shows it can be done reasonably and tactically.
As for giving police officers protective equipment that can stop a rifle round, as Bratton put it, “That’s a no-brainer.”Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.