NYPD's massive New Year's security operation taking cues from Vegas attack

“Las Vegas was a big game changer,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said.

ByABC News
December 29, 2017, 5:44 AM

— -- Indiscriminate gunfire raining down on civilians.

A rental truck tearing through a waterfront bike path on Halloween.

One would-be suicide bomber detonating his vest in a crowded subway tunnel.

Those realities punctuated an already-violent 2017. And with each horrific new act, the New York Police Department instantly turned inward, officials said. They had one thought in mind: what does this mean – what do they have to do now – to protect the 2 million people expected to cram into Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

“We have to pay attention to what’s going on, not just in the city,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill told ABC News just minutes after his final New Year’s planning session with the force’s command staff. “As we went through 2017, we learned a lot of things.”

PHOTO: New York police watch over the subway station at Times Square in New York.
New York police watch over the subway station at Times Square in New York.

ABC News was granted unprecedented access to the NYPD’s final preparations for securing the New Year’s Eve celebration at the crossroads of the world. With a million people or more descending on the heart of Manhattan every year for the ball drop, security is always foremost on the minds of planners and city leaders.

But never before has New Year’s come after two successful terror attacks in New York City: the ramming on the bike path on Oct. 31 and the subway-tunnel bomb blast in early December.

Never before has New Year’s come after high-velocity gunfire tore through a Las Vegas concert in October.

And never before has New Year’s come amid a tempo of intelligence chatter that has made the FBI and Department of Homeland Security as fearful of the unknown as they are today.

In response, NYPD brass said their force -- the largest in the country -- has stepped up its game. As revelers gather Sunday, the police will be fully deploying a three-level security blanket consisting of resources below ground, at ground level and overhead.

Below ground, the subways will be packed with cops both before and after the strike of midnight. Security measures will not disappear after the ringing in of 2018 because, as British police learned after the Manchester bombing this year, crowds can become targets when they exit. Radiation detectors, bomb- and chemical-sniffing dogs will be deployed and people will be subject to heightened security measures like searches and bag-check stations that will seem to be far distances away from the heart of the celebration centered at 42nd Street and Broadway.

PHOTO: New York police patrol by scooter in the subway station near Times Square, New York.
New York police patrol by scooter in the subway station near Times Square, New York.

At ground level, the cops are closing off a wider perimeter this year than ever before. Parking garages will be shuttered. Revelers will be penned in only after being screened multiple times. People going into stores? They’re going to be screened by cops with handheld magnetometers. Guests at the hotels that dot Times Square? They’re going to be screened as well. Cops will be everywhere – both in uniform and plain clothes. Police are also taking measures to deal with the potential risk of a panic that could break out amid the jitters. To deal with that, every pen of revelers will have a cop assigned to it exclusively. If people start getting crazed, the cops will be able to calm fears instantly, NYPD chiefs said.

Going in to this year’s New Year’s celebration, the biggest single concern was the threat from above. NYPD planners have long been cognizant of the security risks posed by snipers who could look to the city’s skyscrapers as undetectable locations to launch attacks. That risk was driven home on Oct. 1 after a deranged gunman opened fire from a perch in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on a Vegas Strip concert venue below.

“Las Vegas was a big game changer,” O’Neill said.

Armed “observation teams” are going to be deployed on overhead locations throughout Times Square, officials said. And “counter-snipers” will be armed with military weapons and stationed throughout the area as if standing sentry over a presidential visit.

On top of that, NYPD counterterrorism teams will be flying in helicopters overhead, keeping tabs on the crowds and watching for anything that might seem out of the ordinary.

“The elevated shooter, we were always concerned about that,” NYPD Counterterrorism Chief Jim Waters said as he surveyed the city from one of the choppers that will be above the throngs Sunday night. “Now it has unfortunately happened somewhere else. We’re prepared to engage with that.”

In addition to the active security measures being deployed this weekend, NYPD brass stressed that their teams of analysts and detectives have been working as usual to try and find in advance any plots that might be in the planning stages or any terrorists who could be lying in wait for the moment to strike.

PHOTO: A New York city police dog gets a pat from a police officer.
A New York city police dog gets a pat from a police officer.

“We began planning for this on Jan. 2,” said NYPD Chief William Morris, the Times Square site commander. “Security is something that we think about every day. It’s something that we think about as we do our normal patrols here.”

“It’s my job to keep everybody safe,” Morris said as he toured Times Square just days before the big night. “What I want to tell New Yorkers is get them to come here and have a great time.”