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Police prep for potential violent protests at State Capitol; no credible threats so far

Karen DeWitt
WRVO Public Media
State Street outside the Capitol is closed to traffic in light of threats of potential violence leading up to Inauguration Day.

The New York State Capitol is bracing for potential violence and armed protesters in the coming days after FBI warnings about significant threats in online chatter from white supremacy and other far-right groups.

State Police said there are no specific credible threats against the building in downtown Albany but are nevertheless stepping up patrols and taking precautions to harden security.

State Police Troop G Commander Major Christopher West said at a Friday briefing at the troop’s headquarters that steps have been taken to increase security at the Capitol. They include closing one of two main entrances on State Street and setting up concrete barriers to divert traffic away from the building.

“We are also aware of information that groups have been advocating for armed protests at state capitols nationwide ahead of the inauguration,” West said. “While there is no credible threat to Albany, we still have taken additional steps to increase security.”

West said New York’s National Guard is also on standby. 

On Friday, police with assault rifles and K-9 unit dogs patrolled on foot outside the building, and 3-foot- high linked metal fences blocked the sweeping staircases on the east and west sides of the building.

West said for safety reasons, he couldn’t reveal exact deployment numbers or law enforcement strategies, but he did say there are adequate forces if things go awry in the next several days.

West was joined by Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins and Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, the New York National Guard’s Eric Underhill, as well as the FBI’s Thomas Relford, who also said they’ve uncovered no “substantiated” threats against state government buildings or state officials.

“That said, our office remains on heightened alert,” said Relford, who added a command post has been set up to coordinate intelligence. 

West said State Police have plenty of practice dealing with protests at the State Capitol. Largely peaceful demonstrations attracting hundreds and sometimes thousands of participants are a routine occurrence there during the legislative session.

He said First Amendment rights to free speech will be protected, but violence of any kind will not be tolerated.

“Anyone who comes to the Capitol with the intention of causing violence or damage to public property will be arrested,” West said. “We have zero tolerance for anyone who incites or causes any violence.”

A confrontation between pro-President Trump demonstrators and counterprotesters outside the State Capitol on Jan. 6 resulted in a stabbing incident and five arrests.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and Hawkins have warned city residents to avoid the downtown area in the coming days, especially on Sunday and on Wednesday -- when President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated – because they believe that’s when demonstrations are most likely to occur.

West said those who work at the Capitol and surrounding government building should go about their business this week, but be careful.

“I think they should take precautions, but they should also just go about their regular lives,” West said.

A letter to workers at the State Capitol, which has been closed to the public since the COVID-19 pandemic struck last March, advises them to not let strangers in or give out any information about office locations. The letter also asks them to be on the lookout for signs of any attempted break-ins.

Despite the warnings, the legislative session is scheduled to take place as planned Tuesday and Wednesday, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo scheduled to give his budget address on Tuesday.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the Assembly is working with state and Capitol police to keep everyone safe.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said while these are “scary times,” she trusts assurances by law enforcement that adequate precautions are in place.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.