Originally published in Gothamist
[UPDATE & CORRECTION BELOW] Since the peak of Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, New York activists have become familiar with Deputy Inspector Andrew J. Lombardo. He’s referenced innumerous tweets, YouTube videos, and news reports. His tactics of seemingly arbitrary arrests, intense questioning, and what some have described as “mind games” have been documented by activists and First Amendment organizations for years.
What isn’t known is that before he rose to be one of the NYPD’s most prominent point men on NYC protests, Lombardo, or “The Lombardo” as many activists not-so-lovingly call him, was part of the military chain of command during the time of the notorious human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib.
The internal Abu Ghraib report matches an “Andrew J. Lombardo” whose picture can be seen on a US Army Reserve Facebook post from 2011 in reference to an NYPD Captain (his rank until very recently) of the same name who held the same position, in the same brigade, at the same time. The Taguba Report [PDF], carried out by Major General Antonio Taguba in May 2004, verifies that Lombardo served in Iraq for the 800th MP Battalion during the time of the prisoner torture scandal.
According to sworn testimony that he submitted for the Taguba Report [PDF], in late 2003 and early 2004 Lombardo served as an Operations Sergeant at Camp Bucca, roughly 300 miles to the southeast of Abu Ghraib. Master Sergeant Lombardo attended briefings at Abu Ghraib, and indirectly oversaw detainee transfers from Abu Ghraib to Camp Bucca. According to the Taguba Report [PDF], both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca suffered “poor living conditions, escapes, and accountability lapses” during the time of the scandal.
Though Lombardo, and several others of the 310 Brigade 800th Battalion were evidently not accused of any wrongdoing, his treatment of protesters in New York is consistent with a broader trend of the way our wars abroad have, in the words of the ACLU [PDF], “come home” and have a potential chilling effect on First Amendment activity. From the importing of armored MRAP trucks through the 1033 Program to a spike in sound cannon purchases, the use of methods developed in Iraq on peaceful protests at home is increasingly making civil libertarians worried.
Dr. Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and expert on the militarization of police, told Gothamist that, “It is hard to come back from military operations that are so deeply rooted in psychological warfare—people dying, yes, but also where you are supposed to be influencing the culture of a population—and not have that bleed into the operation of civilian policing, especially as these officers rise through the ranks.”
“Overall, it is not a good idea to put someone who has cut their teeth in the military in a position where they are policing a potentially volatile situation like a protest,” said Dr. Kraska. “It can cause them to use tactics that are not accepted in democratic policing.”
U.S. Army Reserve Facebook post about NYPD Captain Lombardo, member of the 800th MP BDE
“[Captain Lombardo] used my legal name. That’s how he would mess with me,” long-time Occupy Wall Street protestor Yonatan Miller told us. “Everyone called me ‘Yoni,’ the only way anyone would know my legal name is if they had been running information on me. When he approached me he said my complete name, I took this to mean he wanted me to know that I was being watched. I am a Dutch citizen, this compelled me to stop protesting—I didn’t want any immigration problems.”
Yoni’s run in with Lombardo can be seen in a YouTube video from 2011. In the video, the police push the person holding the camera back so one cannot hear the entire interaction but the hostility is palpable. Yoni claims during this ad hoc investigation he was asked if he had any connections with “terrorists” or “terrorist activity” and was asked to open his bag for search. This episode, along with what Yoni called Lombardo’s “mind games” spelled the end of his activism.
“I wanted to be involved with Black Lives Matter. I really did. But I couldn’t run the risk of being watched, I couldn’t run the risk of being deported,” Yoni insisted.
“These type of arbitrary interrogations smack of pretext by the NYPD,” said Kris Hermes of the National Lawyer’s Guild, an advocacy group that works to protect First Amendment activity. “[What happened to Yoni] is simply the NYPD harassing people without any evidence. The idea that an Occupy protester would have any connection to ‘terrorism’ is dubious to say the least.”
“Police cannot lawfully target protestors based on the content of their speech and cause protesters to abandon the protest,” says Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, senior counsel at Demos, a progressive public policy organization. “If the NYPD is empowering an officer with a history of using questionable tactics to intimidate protesters, that’s a recipe for First Amendment violations.”
Yoni’s fear that activists are being watched, it turns out, is not unfounded. Recent revelations by The Intercept that the NYPD, along with the MTA and other agencies, were monitoring peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters at Grand Central demonstrates a systematic, widespread monitoring and infiltration of peaceful assembly. The documents also back up suspicions many activists have had for years that specific persons were being targeted. The internal emails refer, on numerous occasions, to the movements and activities of the head of the New York chapter of Cop Watch, Jose LaSalle.
“[LaSalle] is being observed inside Grand Central Terminal,” one email from January 15th states, accompanied by a photo of LaSalle. Lawyers who litigated NYPD surveillance of the 2004 RNC protests argue that maintaining photos of peaceful protesters violates the landmark Handschu agreement reached in that case.
This monitoring is even more curious because, last month, LaSalle was arrested by DI Lombardo at a march marking the one year anniversary of the killing of Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
Deputy Inspector Lombardo was not present at the march for two hours as it moved from Harlem to the South Bronx, but when the march reached the 42nd Precinct, Lombardo arrived and arrested LaSalle within minutes. LaSalle was charged with use of amplified sound without a permit, but claims he was merely holding the megaphone when Lombardo arrived, not using it.
“Backed up by his [Strategic Response Group] guys he came at me, put me in plastic cuffs and set me aside.” Jose LeSalle told us. “Then, as he brought me to the vehicle, he told me, ‘I’m going to take you somewhere no one can find you.’” For the purpose of tracking his whereabouts while he was being detained, Lombardo’s alleged threat turned out to be true.
Even though LaSalle was arrested directly in front of the 42nd precinct in the south Bronx, Lombardo and two other officers proceeded to place LaSalle in an NYPD SRG vehicle and take him to one of the northernmost precincts in New York City, the 50th, just south of Van Cortlandt Park, approximately 20 minutes away. Jail support searched for almost two hours, calling every precinct he would have likely been taken to, and could not find LaSalle. The Lawyers Guild and other activists assumed he had gone to Central Booking in lower Manhattan, where some protesters have been brought when they are not taken to a precinct near their arrest, but it wasn’t until LaSalle was released that his whereabouts were known.
The creation of the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group this year has compounded concerns about the policing of protests among activists. The NYPD’s press office confirmed that Lombardo, who was recently promoted to Deputy Inspector, is assigned to the SRG in the role of “supervisor.” The NYPD declined other requests for comment on this story.
When Commissioner Bratton initially announced the creation of SRG, he said it would be a roving group of officers, armed with machine guns, partially funded by the Department of Homeland Security, and assigned to terrorist threats and protests.
After outcry from activists, the NYPD revised Bratton’s statements and said SRG would leave their machine guns in their vehicles and be assigned only to protests and crowd control. Whether SRG, which the NYPD now claims is exclusively for protests and crowd control, will still be funded by the Department of Homeland Security, was never clarified.
According to the National Lawyer’s Guild, SRG is marked by opacity.
“The regular NYPD is perfectly capable to handle protest,” said Hermes. “There’s been little transparency about the mission of SRG or what their officers are tasked with doing exactly.” In a statement released last March, the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild said ”the plain intent of [SRG] is to suffocate political dissent, especially among those New Yorkers already most susceptible to police attention.”
Officer Lombardo removing the “Knitting Old Lady” from Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street (courtesy Stacy Lanyon)
At protests, Deputy Inspector Lombardo is effectively in charge of the new Strategic Response Group, as he was with other officers during Occupy Wall Street, ordering them into position, and frequently instructing them to make arrests.
“In my experience, people who are in charge of departments,” said Dr. Kraska, “like chiefs of police, have been responsible for taking those departments very far down the road of militarization.”
Several other activists we spoke to had similar experiences to those of Jose and Yoni. One protester, who goes by the name “Dragonfly”, says Captain Lombardo approached her after a brief absence from participating in Black Lives Matter and #Fightfor15 actions and said “Where were you? We were looking for you last week”.
Dragonfly, an African American woman, told us she found the encounter, “creepy, smarmy”, and “clearly meant to intimidate.”
Another activist, “Ash J”, said he was once detained at the personal order of Captain Lombardo for simply filming police arresting a man back in December. This was a typical complaint among the activists to whom we spoke—that Lombardo targeted prominent activists for arrest, especially those filming police.
“I was filming a routine arrest during an action and as I was walking away, Captain Lombardo yelled out to one of his blue shirts, ‘That’s him, that’s him!’” Ash said. The policemen caught up to Ash, handcuffed him, and as he was walking back to the patty wagon, according to Ash, Lombardo said, “just say he was blocking traffic.”
Ash’s next encounter with Lombardo would be even more bizarre. A few months later, after a dozen or so activists were arrested for blocking a bridge, Captain Lombardo forced them all to line up and proceeded to dress them down in a long, moralizing speech about why protesting wasn’t advisable.
“He goes from being abusive to trying to be a father-figure,” Ash said. “It’s weird.”
Another activist, Stacy (she asked we not use her real name out of fear she would be targeted) documented Captain Lombardo in 2012 removing an elderly woman known as the “knitting old lady” from a Zuccotti Park encampment in a video that went viral among activists for its brazenness. Lombardo, after having a colleague blare a bullhorn in her ear for a brief time, went up to the elderly woman and forcefully removed her. Though no formal arrest was made, her rocking chair and belongings were summarily removed from the park and left on the sidewalk, according to witnesses.
“That’s why activists are scared of him,” said Ash. “He does the stuff other cops don’t want to do. He does the stuff most people don’t want to do.”
UPDATE & CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article identified NYPD Deputy Inspector Andrew J. Lombardo as having been “a prison guard at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.” According to a spokesman for the Army Reserve, Captain Eric Connor, Lombardo was an Operations Sergeant stationed at Camp Bucca, not Abu Ghraib. We regret the error.