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The militarization of a Hamptons police department

A mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle in front of

A mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle in front of police headquarters in Watertown, Conn. Credit: AP / Steven Valenti

A few weeks ago, the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival held one of its occasional outdoor concerts at a 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 festival is a 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 recently, “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.” While the musicians were onstage, “two armed guards milled around in the open space in the front of the tent where the concert was being held.” Afterward, someone inquiring about the presence of these heavily armed police was told that the Southampton police department required the extra protection.

Yes, it’s true: The town of Southampton, New York, with its 55,000 year-round residents -- and its deserved reputation as a summer playground for the rich and famous -- now has its very own counterterrorism squad. Its members were 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 milling around the finish line.

They’ve since “protected” several dozen high-end Hamptons galas and events, including a big benefit for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, a fundraiser for the James Beard Foundation, the annual Hope in the Hamptons event put on by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and even a family fair that took place at the Children’s Museum of the East End.

The children’s museum! Less weaponry was flashed at Hillary Clinton’s Hamptons fundraisers last year than has been seen at various galas around Southampton this summer.

But why? It’s not as if Southampton has ever suffered a terrorist attack. Indeed, Police Chief Steven Skrynecki has told local media repeatedly 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.” Too, someone on the “ultra right” could try to commit an act of terrorism at a fundraiser attended by wealthy liberals, he said.

Well, yes, I suppose something like that could happen in the Hamptons -- just as it could happen anywhere, at any time. The randomness of a bomb going off in a packed arena, a gunman killing children in a school, a truck barreling into a crowded sidewalk -- that’s the very definition of terrorism. We know 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 (which the police don’t patrol) on Labor Day weekend seems a stretch, to say the least.

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.

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, R-Louisiana. You could even argue that the presence of the Southampton police at high-end galas increases the likelihood of an attack by drawing attention to the events.

“If you do the math,” says Schneier, “the odds of a terrorist attack at one of these events is infinitesimal. You would do more good screening for drunk drivers. But that isn’t sexy.”

When I questioned Skrynecki about the utility of his new counterterrorism force, he took quick umbrage. He talked about lone wolves and the dark web, where bad guys can communicate without being observed by intelligence agents. He spoke not just about the truck attack on a crowd in Nice, France, but also shootings at the Bataclan in Paris and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, as well as the most recent attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of protesters. “There are crowds just as large in Southampton,” he said.

And that’s true. But they’re not just at celebrity galas. And I’m hard-pressed to think of a single example where terrorists sought to kill the rich and famous as opposed to all of us, innocently going about our lives. Any terrorist attack akin to the ones Skrynecki listed would simply not have been stopped by his counterterrorism program. Michael Price of the Brennan Center for Justice, who writes often about security and local policing, described what Skrynecki is doing as “security chic.” That sounds about right.

I went to one Hamptons fundraiser this summer. It was thrown by the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons. There were lots of rich people at the event, including several billionaires. But there wasn’t a single automatic weapon in sight.

That’s because the event took place in East Hampton, one town over. Thankfully, East Hampton doesn’t have a counterterrorism unit. At least not yet.

Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”