Man caught walking into New York cathedral with full gasoline cans, lighters: police

FILE PHOTO: People attend Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, December 25, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

(Reuters) – A 37-year-old man was arrested on Wednesday night after walking into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with two full gasoline cans, lighter fluid, and lighters, police said.

The incident occurred two days after a massive fire severely damaged the eight-century-old Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, causing global shock and sorrow. The blaze was most likely the result of an accident though a major investigation is underway.

In New York, the man entered the Roman Catholic cathedral in midtown Manhattan just before 8 p.m. (0000 GMT) and was confronted by a security guard, according to a New York City Police Department (NYPD) official.

As the man turned to leave, gasoline spilled onto the floor and the guard alerted police officers stationed outside.

Officers caught up with the man and he was taken into custody after questioning, said John Miller, deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism for the NYPD.

“An individual walking into an iconic location like St. Patrick’s Cathedral carrying over four gallons of gasoline, two bottles of lighter fluid and lighters, is something we would have grave concern over,” Miller told reporters.

Asked if terrorism was a possible motive in the incident, Miller said it was “too early to say that”. But, alluding to worldwide publicity about the Notre Dame fire, he added: “This is an indicator of something that would be very suspicious.”

Three predominantly African-American churches in Louisiana burned down between March 26 and April 4. A man was arrested and charged with arson and hate crimes.

The man told police he was taking a short cut through the cathedral to get to Madison Avenue from 5th Avenue to return to his van which had run out of gasoline, Miller said.

When police checked the vehicle they found it was not out of fuel, at which point the man was arrested, he said. “He is known to police and we are looking into his background. We don’t know what his mindset was, what his motive was.”

The man, who police declined to identify because he has not been charged, was still in custody early Thursday.

The New York Daily News and other publications, citing unnamed police sources, identified the man as a philosophy professor and a New Jersey resident.

A police spokesman said detectives would discuss the case with the Manhattan district attorney’s office on Thursday morning to decide on possible charges.

St. Patrick’s, a neo-gothic church across from the Rockefeller Center, has stood in the heart of Manhattan since 1879 and is considered one of the most important symbols of the Catholic Church in the United States.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

New York City murders seen dropping below 300 in 2017

People walk along Sixth Avenue as a cold weather front hits the region in Manhattan, New York, U.S., December 28, 2017.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City is on track to record fewer than 300 murders in 2017, marking a steep decline since the early 1990s when the annual death toll exceeded 2,000 people.

As of Sunday, 284 people were murdered in the nation’s largest city, down from 329 in the same period in 2016, according to New York Police Department (NYPD) data released this week. All seven major crimes tracked by police, including rape, assault and robbery, showed declines.

Barring a spike in the final week of the year, the number of murders in the city will drop under the low of 333 in 2014.

Police officials emphasized that murders continued to decline even as the city’s population swelled to more 8.5 million.

“The homicide rate per capita is lower than anything we have ever seen,” J. Peter Donald, an NYPD spokesman, wrote on Twitter on Thursday. He compared the rate to levels last seen in the 1950s, when there were “1.5 million fewer people living in New York.”

The continued decline is in part vindication for Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who campaigned for the office in 2013 on his opposition to the NYPD’s widespread use of “stop and frisk” policy, which led to random searches for drugs and weapons.

That year, a federal judge ruled that the practise was unconstitutional because it disproportionately targeted black and Latino New Yorkers.

Under de Blasio, the tactic’s use has been sharply curtailed, and warnings by conservative critics that crime rates would creep back up have proved unfounded.

Fewer than 13,700 robberies have been reported so far in 2017, compared with 15,500 in 2016 and 100,280 in 1990. Serious assaults fell below 20,000, about half the number seen in 1990. Burglaries have dipped below 12,000, compared to 122,055 in 1990.

Police had recorded 1,416 rapes in the year through Sunday, one fewer than the same period last year but above the low in 2009 of 1,205.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

New York subway attack shows limits of counterterror strategy

New York subway attack shows limits of counterterror strategy

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Minutes after a man set off a pipe bomb strapped to his body in one of New York’s busiest transit hubs, throwing the Monday morning commute into chaos for many, a suspect was in custody, trains were rerouted and throngs of police swarmed the streets.

The massive response exposed the limits of the antiterrorism force the city has built since the deadly attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It has learned to respond quickly and effectively to attacks but faces an almost impossible task in trying to thwart every threat, particularly the acts of “lone wolves” targeting public places and New York’s vast transit system.

Nearly 6 million people ride New York’s subway each day, entering at any one of the system’s 472 stations – more stops than any other in the world.

That open access is partly what allows U.S. train systems to carry five times as many passengers as airlines but also leaves unique security vulnerabilities, according to a Congressional Research Service report earlier this year.

“You can’t search everyone entering a subway system, particularly a system the size of the one in New York,” said Tom Nolan, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security analyst who is now a professor of criminology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.

No one was killed in Monday’s attack, and the person most severely injured was the accused bomber, whom police identified as Akayed Ullah, 27.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo sounded relieved when he told reporters that just three other people had been slightly hurt in the attack.

“When you hear about a bomb in the subway station, which is in many ways one of our worst nightmares, the reality turns out better than the initial expectation and fear,” Cuomo said.

He had reason to expect worse: Suicide bombers killed 52 people in on London subways and a bus system in 2005, 40 people were killed in the 2010 bombing of the Moscow subway and last year 32 died in coordinated attacks on Brussels’ subway and airport.

“This is a fact of life, whether you’re in New York or London or Paris,” New York Police Department counterterrorism chief John Miller told reporters. “It can happen anywhere.”


A network of cameras blankets almost all of New York’s subway system, which sprawls over 665 miles (1,070 km) of tracks. The New York City Police Department uses radiation detectors to search for “dirty” bombs, which combine a traditional explosive with radioactive material, said Anthony Roman, a private security consultant who is familiar with NYPD antiterrorism efforts.

Undercover and uniformed police patrol the system, along with bomb-sniffing dogs, random screening posts and heavily armed tactical officers.

The city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force collects intelligence from overseas, and cameras equipped with facial and license plate recognition can help investigators track suspects in real time, Roman said.

But attempting to screen every passenger, as airports do using metal detectors and body scanners, is an impossible task and would only create more opportunities for attacks by causing crowding.

“They will never be 100 percent,” Roman said. “The goal is to prevent and deter the vast majority of events, and for those few that occur, minimize their effect by quick, coordinated, interdepartmental response.”

The NYPD’s Miller said intelligence had stopped at least 26 plots since 2001. But the proliferation of so-called “lone wolf” attackers, who are self-radicalized and not working with an overseas militant group, has made it harder to do so, experts said.

Both Ullah and Sayfullo Saipov, accused of killing eight people on a Manhattan bike lane with a rented truck in the name of Islamic State, appear to have acted alone, according to authorities.

“When you have lone attackers, it’s much more difficult,” said Max Leitschuh, the senior transportation analyst at the risk management and security consulting company iJET International.

Following Monday’s attack, cities including Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles increased security for their mass transit systems.

Ultimately, those efforts are mostly about reassuring the public, said Maria Haberfeld, an expert in police counterterrorism and a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“You have to accept it,” said Haberfeld, who served in a counterterrorist unit in the Israel Defense Forces. “You can only put so many barriers out there before you abandon the idea of an open society.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Three in critical condition after car plows through Times Square

People walk between newly erected concrete barricades outside the 3 Times Square building in Times Square where a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians Thursday in New York City, U.S., May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Jonathan Allen and Gina Cherelus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Three people remained in critical condition on Friday after a driver plowed into pedestrians in New York City’s Times Square the day before, killing a young woman on vacation and injuring her sister and 19 others, police said.

Richard Rojas, the 26-year-old motorist, accelerated as he turned onto the sidewalk and appeared to have intentionally tried to mow down pedestrians, Mayor Bill de Blasio and police said. He is due in court in Manhattan later on Friday to face charges of murder, attempted murder and vehicular homicide.

Rojas, who had served in the U.S. Navy, has prior convictions for drunk driving. Police said he was intoxicated as he knocked pedestrians into the air while speeding for three blocks in his burgundy Honda sedan through one of the city’s busiest areas. The car crashed into a metal stanchion.

“People are being dragged, they’re on top of the car,” Bill Aubry, a New York Police Department assistant chief, told a news conference on Friday.

“He left his house at 10:30 yesterday morning, and at 11:54 he came to Times Square,” Aubry said. “There were no incidents in between. That goes to his state of mind. He waited for these cars to pass, and he accelerated.”

Results of drug tests on Rojas are expected in the next few days, Aubry said.

City officials do not consider the incident an act of terrorism, de Blasio said.

“It appears to be intentional in the sense that he was troubled and lashing out,” the mayor said in an interview with radio station WNYC. He said Rojas had “an untreated mental health issue going back probably decades.”

Police said the young woman killed on the sidewalk was Alyssa Elsman, 18, who was on vacation with her family from Michigan. People were leaving flowers, photographs of Elsman and a stuffed teddy bear on Friday near the spot where she died.

Her sister remained in the hospital in critical condition, with a collapsed lung and broken pelvis, Aubry said. A 38-year-old woman from Canada was in very critical condition.

The fire department said earlier that 22 people were injured, but police on Friday said the number was 20.

Rojas, who lives with his mother in New York City’s Bronx borough, had been arrested twice for drunken driving, in 2008 and 2015, and once this month on a charge of menacing for threatening another man with a knife, police said.

Rojas faces charges of one count of second-degree murder, five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and 20 counts of attempted murder, police said.

Although only one person was killed, a driver can face multiple counts of vehicular homicide under New York law if other people are seriously injured. It was unclear if Rojas has a lawyer.

Navy records show Rojas enlisted in September 2011 and was based in Illinois and Florida, working as an electrician’s mate fireman apprentice.

He was arrested a year later at a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida, where officials said he attacked a cab driver, shouted “my life is over,” and threatened to kill police, according to court records. Rojas was charged at the time with misdemeanor battery and resisting an officer without violence, but it was unclear how the case was resolved.

He spent two months in a military prison in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 2013, but the Navy records did not say why. He left the Navy in May 2014.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Gina Cherelus; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Von Ahn)

Ex-prosecutor, retired cops charged in New York corruption probe

Joon H. Kim (L), the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill (C) attend a news conference to announce the arrest of three retired New York City Police (NYPD) officers in connection with a Federal corruption investigation into the NYPD's gun license Division in New York City, U.S., April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – Three retired New York City police officers and a former Brooklyn prosecutor were arrested Tuesday on charges that they took part in a bribery scheme involving gun licenses, becoming the latest people caught up in a wide-ranging corruption probe.

Federal prosecutors say that Paul Dean, 44, and Robert Espinel, 47, took bribes in exchange for approving gun licenses while they were working in the police department’s gun licensing division. Both retired last year, according to prosecutors.

The bribes included cash, paid vacations, expensive liquor and thousands of dollars worth of services at a strip club, according to a criminal complaint unsealed on Tuesday.

Prosecutors also charged two so-called “expediters” who paid bribes to help their clients get licenses.

Gaetano Valastro, 58, a retired police detective who owned a gun store in the borough of Queens, was charged on Tuesday with paying bribes, including cash and free guns, to Dean, Espinel and another officer, Richard Ochetal, who pleaded guilty last year.

John Chambers, 62, a lawyer who worked as a prosecutor in Brooklyn in the 1980s, is charged with paying bribes to David Villanueva, another officer in the licensing division.

Villanueva was arrested last year. Documents unsealed on Tuesday show that he has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Chambers’ bribes to Villanueva included cash, meals, sports memorabilia and a watch valued at $8,000, prosecutors say.

The prosecutors said that in 2015 Dean and Espinel proposed going into business with Valastro as expediters to make more money. Valastro agreed to let them use his store for their business, and they agreed to send business his way, prosecutors said.

Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim said at a news conference on Tuesday that over 100 licenses were issued as a result of the scheme, including to people with criminal histories.

Barry Slotnick, a lawyer for Chambers, could not immediately be reached for comment. Lawyers for the other defendants could not immediately be identified.

The charges over gun licensing were part of a broader federal investigation that resulted in charges in June against two high-ranking police officials for accepting lavish benefits from a pair of politically connected businessmen for favors.

At least two others have pleaded guilty to paying bribes for gun licenses. Alex Lichtenstein, a member of a volunteer safety patrol in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, has been sentenced to 32 months in prison.

Another man, Frank Soohoo, is cooperating with authorities, according to newly unsealed documents.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

New York police body camera program needs changes: civil rights lawyers

FILE PHOTO - A police body camera is seen on an officer during a news conference on the pilot program of body cameras involving 60 NYPD officers dubbed 'Big Brother' at the NYPD police academy in the Queens borough of New York, December 3, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Civil rights lawyers on Wednesday demanded changes to a pilot program for New York City police to wear body cameras, saying it does not ensure that officers are held properly accountable for how they treat people.

The court-ordered program, whose details were approved by a federal monitor last week, was intended to precede a rollout of the cameras to all patrol officers by the end of 2019.

That came after the New York Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” methods, faulted by critics as a means to conduct racial profiling, were declared unconstitutional.

But lawyers including Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Angel Harris of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said the year-long pilot program was vague about when officers must use cameras.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres in Manhattan, they said officers should be required to turn cameras on during “forcible” stops, encounters where people are free to walk away and when they are “generally” looking out for crime.

The lawyers also said the program should clarify when officers must alert people about the cameras, and that officers cannot review videos until after writing their reports or making statements, so the footage does not color their recollections.

“Details of the policy as approved by the monitor turn the cameras from an accountability tool into a tool for surveilling and criminalizing New Yorkers,” the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement.

Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s law department, said: “We are reviewing the plaintiffs’ submission and will respond in due course.”

The stop-and-frisk litigation helped start the body camera program in New York City, which joined cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., that also adopted the devices.

Such efforts were launched amid nationwide concerns about the use of excessive force by police, especially against black and Hispanic people.

The monitor, Peter Zimroth, on April 11 urged Torres to let the program go ahead without further court intervention. But the civil rights lawyers disagreed, citing a risk that police unions may try to block it in court.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who has had an uneven relationship with the police department, favors equipping patrol officers with body cameras. He is seeking re-election in November.

The cases are Floyd v City of New York, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 08-01034; and Davis v City of New York in the same court, No. 10-00699.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)

New York police arrest 25 at immigration protest in Trump Tower

A New York City Police officer (NYPD) escorts protestors after making arrests for demonstrating in Trump Tower in New York, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York police on Thursday arrested 25 people in the lobby of Trump Tower protesting U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration and border policies.

The demonstrators who sat in front of the elevators and chanted “no ban, no raids, no wall!” led security forces to close public accesses to the president’s signature property, a commercial and residential skyscraper where first lady Melania Trump and son Barron Trump stay while the president is in Washington.

As heavily armed police wearing ballistic vests stood guard blocking the entrances, other officers carried the protesters to police vans.

The building in the heart of the Fifth Avenue shopping district was also home to Trump’s campaign and has been his primary residence for years. The lobby is open to the public, though security was tightened as the 2016 campaign progressed and he was elected president.

Charges were pending, a police said in a statement.

The demonstrators wore T-shirts with slogans such as “No wall,” in reference to Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico, and “No raids,” referring to U.S. arrests of suspected undocumented immigrants.

“No ban” refers to Trump’s executive orders seeking to restrict immigration from several Muslim-majority countries.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Messages show New York police surveillance of Black Lives Matter

People participate in a Black Lives Matter protest in front of Trump Tower in New York City, U.S. January 14, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Documents released by the New York Police Department and published by a newspaper on Tuesday shed new light on how undercover officers surveilled organizers from the Black Lives Matter movement who were protesting police tactics.

The documents include brief internal messages between officers that track demonstrators’ movements during “die-in” protests at New York City’s Grand Central Terminal in 2014 and 2015, as well as photographs and a video of the protests.

They also include two photographs of text messages on the screen of an unknown person’s cellphone that appear to be instructions sent by organizers telling protesters where to gather.

“TONIGHT 8PM Die In & Community Convergence at Grand Central,” one of the messages reads in part.

A New York judge ordered the release of the documents in February after a protester, James Logue, successfully sued the NYPD under freedom of information laws, arguing that the police may have inappropriately interfered with the right to protest peacefully.

The city released the documents to Logue last month, and they were published on Tuesday by the Guardian. The NYPD did not respond to questions, although it has acknowledged its use of undercover officers in the protests.

David Thompson, a lawyer representing Logue, said he was concerned by the photographs of the two organizing text messages because they were shared among only a small group of people.

“So we think this means that at least one police officer managed to get him or herself into this core group of organizers and might still be there for all we know,” he said in an interview. “And that’s disturbing.”

Thompson said the police surveillance of the protesters and the retention of photographs of them without any publicly known evidence of unlawful activity by the protesters was wrong.

Several of the protests in 2014 and 2015 were prompted by outrage over the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man selling loose cigarettes on New York’s Staten Island who died shouting “I can’t breathe!” as a police officer’s arm gripped his neck.

Some legal experts said in interviews it was difficult to tell from the limited information released whether the police department broke court-ordered rules that govern how New York City can police political activity, but that the surveillance seemed disproportionate.

“A ‘sit-in’ is not the same as an act of violence, and the police should not be engaged in maximal surveillance for non-violent activity,” said Arthur Eisenberg, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s legal director.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Protecting Trump Tower cost NY City $24 million from election to inauguration

FILE PHOTO - Police and fire crew stand outside Trump Tower following a report of a suspicious package in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. on December 27, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – It cost New York City about $24 million to provide security at Trump Tower, President Donald Trump’s skyscraper home in Manhattan, from Election Day to Inauguration Day, or $308,000 per day, New York’s police commissioner said on Wednesday.

The revelation prompted renewed calls for Congress to reimburse the city for the cost of protecting Trump’s private residence on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, where his wife and their son continue to reside.

“We are seeking full federal reimbursement for all costs incurred related to security for President Trump and his family at Trump Tower,” Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote in an email to Reuters.

New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement that the Police Department now has a dual role in protecting the first family while also serving and protecting residents in the city.

“Trump Tower itself now presents a target to those who wish to commit acts of terror against our country, further straining our limited counterterrorism resources,” O’Neill said.

Trump’s spokespeople could not be reached immediately for comment.

De Blasio asked the U.S. government in December for up to $35 million to cover security costs for protecting Trump in his home atop the 58-story skyscraper, which is located on Fifth Avenue near Central Park, an area popular with tourists.

At $24 million, the final cost was less than that. Trump spent most of his time from Election Day on Nov. 8 until his inauguration on Jan. 20 at his penthouse apartment in Trump Tower.

In addition to the police protection, the Fire Department incurred $1.7 million in costs during the time period Trump was in New York, according to O’Neill.

On days when first lady Melania Trump and the couple’s son, Barron, are the only ones in the city, security going forward will cost between $127,000 and $145,000 per day, less than when the president is in residence, O’Neill said.

When Trump is in town, the cost of police protection will go back up to $308,000 on average per day, O’Neill said. It will cost about another $4.5 million per year for the New York City Fire Department to protect the building, he said.

“We anticipate these costs will increase significantly whenever the president is in New York City,” he said.

Trump has not been back to Manhattan since his inauguration.

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney said in a statement on Wednesday that the city’s taxpayers should not be forced to pay for a “national security obligation” and that “Congress must provide city taxpayers a full reimbursement.”

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Leslie Adler)

New York City police to wear body cameras under labor settlement

NYPD now needing cameras

By Hilary Russ

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City and its largest police union settled on a tentative five-year labor contract on Tuesday that includes salary increases while also agreeing that all patrol officers will wear body cameras by the end of 2019.

The agreement “is a big step forward for a vision of safety in which police and the community are true partners,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference with union and police officials.

The New York Police Department, the nation’s largest, already has a pilot program with cameras for 1,000 officers. But further rollout was stymied by a lawsuit, which the union agreed to drop as part of the deal.

New York will join other cities requiring their police forces to wear body cameras amid nationwide concerns over use of excessive force by police. Chicago aims to have the devices on all officers by the end of this year.

The contract agreement also removes a potentially expensive uncertainty that was a hold-over from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who left office at the end of 2013 with every public-sector labor contract long-expired.

Since taking office, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has chipped away at negotiations with teachers and other unions, but the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association contract was still a major sticking point.

Reached at about 4 a.m. on Tuesday, the agreement will cost the city $530.4 million altogether, most of which will be covered by a labor reserve fund. Including healthcare savings, the net cost to the city is $336.7 million.

The deal, covering nearly 24,000 police officers, includes a 2.25 percent bump in base salary for patrol officers as they shift to a new method of neighborhood policing which focuses more on beat patrols and community interaction.

The increase that patrol officers get will be offset in part by lower starting salaries for new hires, although their maximum salaries will rise. Upon approval by union members, the new contract would go into effect March 15.

The city will also support the union’s efforts to get state lawmakers to provide disability benefits at three-quarters of salary, while the union agreed to drop other lawsuits against the city.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Daniel Bases and Andrew Hay)