The town of Southampton, with its 55,000 year-round residents and vaunted reputation as a summertime playground for wealthy New Yorkers, now has its very own counterterrorism squad. And unsurprisingly, it’s making the out-of-towners nervous.
At least that’s what Joe Nocera, a former New York Times columnist who now writes for Bloomberg View, suggested in a recent column. Apparently, the image of police carrying automatic weapons roaming around the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival is just too gauche for Nocera’s wealthy friends to stomach.
According to Nocera, the squad was first sighted in April, when cops wearing bulletproof vests and carrying fully loaded AR-15s showed up at the Bridgehampton Half Marathon, where they spent most of their time patrolling around the finish line.
But their presence at the BCMF left an impression on one of Nocera’s friends.
“A few weeks ago, the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival held one of its occasional outdoor concerts at a nearby Long Island winery. It was well attended - 400 concertgoers came to sip wine and listen to the music of Bach and Django Reinhardt - but that wasn’t a surprise: Now in its 34th year, the music festival is one of the mainstays of the Hamptons summer season.
Here’s what was surprising, according to my friend and former New York Times colleague Susan Lehman, who was there: “Driving in,” she emailed me the other day, “it was impossible not to notice two figures with the word POLICE emblazoned in white on their spruce black costumes, and very noticeable automatic weapons in their hands.” She added that while the musicians were on stage, “two armed guards milled around in the open space in the front of the tent where the concert was being held.” Afterward, when someone inquired about the presence of these heavily armed police, he was told that the Southampton police department required the extra protection.”
Regardless of whether the terorr squad's presence is justified (as one resident informs Nocera, the town of Southampton has never suffered a terrorist attack), listening to rich white people complain about there being too many police is deliciously ironic.
“But why? It’s not as if Southampton has ever suffered a terrorist attack. Indeed, Southampton’s police chief, Steven Skrynecki, has repeatedly told the local media that there hasn’t been so much as a hint of a threat. But with so many events attracting wealthy celebrities - and with terrorist incidents on the rise in many Western countries - he felt that it was necessary to increase security.
‘Many of the people at Southampton events are symbols of American affluence and success and capitalism,’ Skrynecki told me. ‘At the same time, there is an abundance of freedom of expression and morals and dress. The attendees’ beliefs might be contrary to the known ideology of terrorist groups.’ He also mentioned the possibility that someone on the “ultra right” could try to commit an act of terrorism at a fundraiser attended by wealthy liberals.”
At one point, Nocera comes tantalizingly close to a breakthrough…
“We know that there will be terror attacks; that’s the world we live in. We just don’t know when or where. And the notion that there is a higher likelihood of an attack on a chamber music concert or a family fair than, say, an overcrowded Hamptons train depot on Labor Day weekend (which the police don’t patrol) seems a stretch, to say the least.”
…before blaming the town's chief of police of spreading "militarization fever."
“There’s another, more plausible reason Southampton has a 15-person counterterrorism squad. Skrynecki, it would seem, has caught militarization fever, a disease that too many of his fellow police chiefs have also come down with. It is disease that will soon spread further, now that President Donald Trump has agreed to give local police forces renewed access to surplus military equipment, something Barack Obama’s administration had restricted after the clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Police officers are being transformed into soldiers.”
Nocera’s column wouldn’t be complete without an exegesis on the post-9/11 militarization of American police departments, a trend that will no doubt continue now that president Trump has lifted a ban on surplus military equipment being repurposed by local PDS.
“The militarization of local police forces, of course, is a trend that began after the Sept. 11 attacks, when many departments added “fighting terror” to their mission statements, and when the federal government began to make money available to local police to buy military-style equipment, including automatic weapons, night vision goggles and other paraphernalia. As the security expert Bruce Schneier points out, “when they get this stuff, they want to trot it out. So now it is being used.” Counterterrorism is as good an excuse as any.
There are certainly places where police are justified in having officers hold highly visible AR-15s - Fifth Avenue in New York City, in front of Trump Tower, is a pretty good example. In his previous post, as police chief of Nassau County, Skrynecki oversaw the huge security effort at last year’s presidential debate at Hofstra University. In the Hamptons, a visiting cabinet secretary like Wilbur Ross or Steven Mnuchin probably needs to have extra layers of visible security.
But the experts I spoke to thought that most of the time, such measures were counterproductive. It meant that the 15 members of the Southampton counterterrorism unit weren’t doing more productive policing. With both their hands needing to be on the gun, it was far more cumbersome to respond to less extreme situations that might arise. Most real terrorism prevention takes place before “the moment of contact” -- when the intelligence community scopes out a planned attack and stops it before it begins. There were, after all, Capitol police guarding the congressional baseball game in June, but they couldn’t prevent James Hodgkinson from nearly killing House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. You could even make the case that the presence of the Southampton police at high-end galas increases the likelihood of an attack by drawing attention to the events.”
Shame on the Southampton PD for having the audacity to force wealthy gala attendees to acknowledge the unfortunate reality that terrorism represents in the dangerous modern world in which we all live. Does he have any idea how this might impact home prices?
Luckily, anyone who’s been “triggered” by the terror squad this summer has at least one alternative: Maybe next year, they can vacation in Easthampton – one town over. Their police department doesn’t have a terrorism unit.
At least, not yet.