Operation Atlas

Gosh -- a New York police sergeant strode past my bench by the Hellgate railroad bridge on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Queens, New York's entirely safe Astoria Park. Soon, a high-octane, NYPD lieutenant or captain followed in the sergeant's footsteps near the East River.

Over on the sidewalk where the park fronts a street, 12 cops were chewing the fat in knots of two or three, a stone's throw apart. Hats in hand, they stared randomly, making no attempt to look busy. Their collar brass indicated they were from two neighboring precincts. In reply to my offhand question, the first two groups voiced tripe about just being assembled en masse to protect the good citizens of Queens. Then two cops standing alone mid-block spilled the beans.

They were there on Operation Atlas overtime, the NYPD's anti-terrorism program. They'd stood by the foot of the Triboro Bridge for a while, they said, then on a largely deserted street by a huge energy facility. I said something about hanging in the park being pretty easy OT, and one laughed, "Yeah, the worst that could happen is a bird could shit on my head."

Realizing this a bit intemperate to a taxpayer, the other stopped laughing to add helpfully that in training they had learned of some mosques in this part of Queens that sent money to nefarious types overseas. And anyway, he noted, Operation Atlas was "federal money."

Nine more cops from a different Queens precinct hung out on the sidewalk down by the river. If anyone tried to shoot a shoulder-fired missile at one of the two bridges, they'd get nabbed for sure. Confirming it as Atlas OT, one of these cops also thought to volunteer that it was "federal money." Perhaps a half-dozen other cops, including a couple of sergeants and their white-shirted boss, wandered around the park. Eventually, near shift's end, the more than two dozen of them piled into vans and headed off.

H. T. Delancey, from the 47th Precinct in the Bronx, is a scant eight paydays from retirement. Since the war in Iraq began in March, he has been protecting New York from terrorism. Like most Bronx cops, he typically does two Operation Atlas overtime shifts each month, going out with seven other officers and a sergeant from his precinct, perhaps meeting up with other Bronx cops as well. Depending on travel time, Delancey said, they get an itinerary of five or six locations per shift, staying about an hour at each and responding to radio jobs while in transit and on post -- just like any other duty. He's done some bridges and Metro North train stations, Yankee Stadium and a Bronx shopping district.

When asked for the greatest terror-related threat he has faced in his approximately 10 Atlas tours, he tells of a middle-aged woman -- "probably an out-of-towner" -- who asked if she could park her carryall bag with him for a while. He had to sternly refuse.

OT is time-and-a-half pay, and it adds up quickly. Douglas Offerman, a senior research associate at the private Citizens Budget Commission, calculates that each non-rookie policeman earns $399 in pay and benefits for one Atlas shift. Sergeants and above, of course, are paid more. All told, the some 27 cops I saw in that Queens park cost the city the tidy sum of approximately $11,000. One source in city budget circles calculates current Atlas expenditures at some $375,000 per day or $2.6 million per week. That's down from the widely reported peak of $5 million a week back before President Bush declared major hostilities "over" in Iraq.

Despite the two cops' reassuring fiscal comments, it's not federal money. Federal money has been promised the city, and some has actually arrived, but it goes to general city coffers. Nothing at present is earmarked specifically for Operation Atlas.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told me that Atlas has cost the city more than $31 million since the war began in March. For fiscal year 2004 (which began July 1, 2003), that figure "could be well over $100 million."

Kelly noted that the city "has been targeted five times in the last decade." Regarding Atlas, he said, "We're providing disruptive reconnaissance. No one else is doing what [the NYPD] does -- not the federal authorities, not the military. We're at the top of the target list‚" So it's expensive, but we see no alternative."

As ever, it comes down to the proper allocation of resources. Atlas' anticipated $100 million in OT during the current fiscal year must come from somewhere. There will be cutbacks to both major drug investigations and misdemeanor "quality of life" arrests, as well as a successful program to flood high-crime areas with rookie cops and their mentors. Meanwhile, every day that passes without incident makes New Yorkers wonder about the worth of dozens of cops congregating in areas that seem perfectly safe.

Referring to a chic shopping area, one cop who has pulled Atlas duty all over Manhattan said, "It can freak people out when 40 or 50 cops show up down in Soho where [everyone's] used to doing their own thing."

Sounds like a typical Atlas operation, at least according to a sergeant from the Midtown South precinct. In one shift, he said, up to 50 cops -- a lieutenant or captain and maybe five sergeants with eight uniforms each -- will hit several high-profile spots around Manhattan, from "obvious" potential targets such as Penn Station and Grand Central to less obvious ones like the Daily News offices. He added that detectives do their own thing with Atlas, as do the specialized Emergency Service Units.

Meanwhile, housing cops conduct quotidian tours of radio jobs and scattering dealers while on Atlas OT. One cop, up in the Bronx on 149th St. by Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, made it quite clear that his Atlas OT was in Bronx housing projects. Down on Manhattan's Lower East Side, another said his Atlas team of eight patrolled their regular projects. In Long Island City, Queens, a housing cop interrupted talk of bridges and tunnels by saying, "No, you see, we're housing cops. We focus on the projects."

And so they do. On the Atlas clock.

When asked about this, Kelly said, "I have no problem with that. We want a police presence there."

He spoke of "population centers" and "higher levels of comfort" in various communities, adding that Atlas money has funded patrols in many of New York's "Jewish communities."

Peter Vallone, Jr., chair of the City Council Public Safety Committee, corroborated the current Atlas expenditures at between $2 to $3 million per week. He was unaware that housing cops were pursuing their regular duties under Atlas. When asked about this allocation, he suggested that "possibly they're being paid that Operation Atlas overtime because other members of the force are being taken away to do anti-terror patrols."

As for deploying cops to their regular posts, Robert J. Louden, a former NYPD chief hostage negotiator and current professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, theorized that putting cops at their regular post for a sixth day provides "an extra cadre on a particular day, if there's a major mobilization or something at the U.N.‚" There's a ready reserve for street work, and they're not stripping personnel from the precincts."

"If it hits the fan," he said, "there's a ready mobilization force."

The rash of bank robberies plaguing New York this year has also attracted Atlas' attention. One cop from the 7th precinct said he spent some Atlas time guarding Chase and Citibank, and his partner said he spent one whole day outside a Washington Mutual branch. The cop who'd gone to Soho had also staked out banks, as had one from the 10th precinct who said he's part of a detail that "floods the area" around one or another bank.

According to Police Commissioner Kelly, "It's important to keep crime down in New York to keep it viable."

On some days, cars might be parked in front of a hotel, other days in front of a bank, he said.

"We're trying to be unpredictable," said Kelly, who added that the specialized, heavily armed Hercules team doesn't even know where they're headed at the start of a shift.

In the housing projects, up at Yankee Stadium or the Empire State Building -- it's very possible that the cop you see is on Atlas time. One local news broadcast even claimed that Atlas cops were writing traffic tickets day after day.

"That's not the goal," Kelly stated, and he offered that perhaps an overzealous supervisor had directed that effort.

Peter Roman, a security expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center, thinks there's a calculated element of surprise. Echoing Kelly's declaration that terrorists have been arrested here and abroad with photos of New York City locations, Roman said, "Captives have indicated that they're casing locations. So even if there's an element of 'for show,' that sort of unpredictability can help."

Even stationing police at the bridge and tunnel entrances serves a purpose. According to Kelly, they can be utilized at a moment's notice to isolate the bridge. They can prevent someone from escaping Manhattan or stop a particular vehicle, or even respond to something a camera or other sensor might pick up.

"They're doing a lot more than hanging out," he said.

Indeed, according to press reports in June, Iyman Faris, the potential al Qaeda terrorist now on federal ice, told his terror bosses that security at the Brooklyn Bridge was too hot to permit terrorists to attempt to sever its cables.

Overtime has long been a way to reward public-sector workers. According to a December 2002 report on the NYPD's finances by Douglas Offerman of the Citizens Budget Commission: "During the late 1990s, high overtime spending represented a tacit pay raise for uniformed officers."

In fact, the CBC notes, in FY2001, the average cop got nearly $8000 in overtime pay, due, in part, to the city's attempt to meet new challenges with fewer cops. Offerman cites a total uniformed force estimate for the end of June of 36,878-down from FY2000's peak of 40,285.

After hovering roughly around $130 million during the early 1990s, the CBC reports that NYPD overtime spending jumped to $160 million in 1998; $250 million in 2000; and $345 million in FY2001, which ended the June prior to the World Trade Center attacks. In testimony before the City Council in May, Kelly pegged FY2003 overtime at $258 million-or some $77 million over budget. Referring to routine police work, the CBC warns that "overtime spending" raises the unit cost of services [thus] wasting funds."

James Jay Carafano, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, believes that overtime should only be used for regular duty to cover for officers who are in counter-terrorism training. Regular OT is a slippery slope, Carafano said, because subsidizing ongoing operations leads to improper staffing levels. It buys some hours of coverage, but doesn't build anything, unlike, for example, training officers in hazardous materials. "You're not buying capacity over the long-term," he concluded.

Fiscal year 2003, which just ended, saw $258 million in OT costs -- way over budget. In May, Kelly told the city council that the OT budget for the current year is $189 million; of that, something north of $100 million will be Atlas.

The cuts won't be bloodless. For starters, $56 million of overtime enforcement will be eliminated. The 'quality of life' street busts effort will be suspended indefinitely, and the Narcotics Initiative and Operation Impact will be reduced to straight-time only. According to the mayor's office, Impact -- which paired rookies with senior cops in high crime areas -- led to a 47 percent drop in homicides, 43 percent fewer robberies, and a 31 percent drop in grand larcenies in those spots.

Asked about these fiscal casualties, Kelly said there have been cuts in "programmatic" rather than "unplanned" OT. Regarding drug enforcement, he said the cuts affect things like longer-term cases and the undercover renting of cars and hotel rooms. Street-level enforcement will remain at the same level.

In effect, the street thugs will still get popped, while larger-scale operations will be curtailed.

"The cuts have to come from someplace," said Kelly.

As for Washington picking up the tab, Judy Chesser, the city's chief DC lobbyist, said that Sept. 11 money aside, some ongoing homeland security funds are contained in current legislation. There have been several allocations to the city since March -- totaling some $160 million -- but the checks are largely still in the mail.

Chesser added that Atlas is a city program to be reimbursed by the feds only when the Department of Homeland Security issues a nationwide orange alert. New York City itself has been citrus since the silly color scheme was introduced, while the nation has remained mostly on yellow, or "elevated" alert.

When presented with Chesser's figure of $160 million, Kelly said it was fine, but not enough, noting that, "We took a hit for all Americans."

Is it worth it? The experts certainly think so. But how do you prove that something didn't happen because large, visible groups of cops show up unexpectedly around the city?

As one cop said, the goal is to make the department look larger than it actually is. In an attempt to forestall that next atrocity, the city will have cops at a bridge, housing project and park near you.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in New York Press.

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