CAPITOL — The state Capitol in downtown Albany has always drawn protests — but law enforcement is on extraordinarily high alert out of concern that expected Capitol protests over the upcoming presidential inauguration could turn violent.
State police, the FBI and local police agencies are preparing for the possibility of trouble tied to President-elect Joe Biden’s installation on Wednesday. The FBI has warned of possible armed protests at state capitols across the country, though no specific information indicates Albany is a target.
Still, law enforcement agencies have launched an extraordinary campaign to warn violent extremists to stay away from Albany.
“We have no problem at all with peaceful protests, but we want to be sure this is clearly understood — anyone who comes to the Capitol with the intention of causing violence or damage to public property will be arrested,” state police Troop G Commander Major Christopher West said.
“We have zero tolerance for anyone who incites or tolerates acts of violence,” West said at a news conference Friday at troop headquarters in Latham, where he was joined by numerous other law enforcement officials.
West said state police, the FBI, Albany city police and the Albany County Sheriff’s Department — all of which were represented at the press conference — are coordinating their planning for any protests. National Guard troops will be on standby.
Following the deadly riot-attack by supporters of President Donald J. Trump at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, security at state capitals across the country is already heightened, including at the New York State Capitol.
Earlier that day, two people were stabbed in the park at the foot of the Capitol steps, in an encounter between opposing political protesters. While arrests were made, the national and local incidents together prompted a decision to block off part of State Street near the Capitol, close the State Street entrance, and increase the state police armed presence.
Ahead of the upcoming protests, there is growing national unease. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Emergency Services has cautioned first responders about possible risk when responding to civil unrest. A national newspaper organization advised reporters to use caution when covering protests.
Sunday and Wednesday are when some right-wing social media has indicated there could be armed protests over Trump’s defeat and the transition. This week, the FBI sent out a national bulletin warning of possible protests at all 50 state capitols.
“At this time the FBI has no credible, substantiated threat against this community. That said, our office remains on heightened alert,” said Thomas Relford, acting special agent in charge of the Albany FBI office.
West said additional troopers will be assigned to the Capitol because of the protests, but he wouldn’t reveal numbers, strategies or any operational tactics, citing security reasons. “We want the public to know we are ready to respond,” West said.
Their goal isn’t to suppress free speech rights, police said, but to prevent violence.
“We have no problem at all with peaceful protests, but we want to be sure this is clearly understood — 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.”
Albany city officials are asking the public to avoid downtown on Sunday and on Wednesday, due to the possibility of protests and increased traffic.
“Sunday and Wednesday are days when we hear there could be hot protests, but we are prepared for other days as well,” West said.
Mayor Kathy Sheehan noted that protests at the state Capitol are common, and police are accustom to dealing with them. “We are preparing for large protests, but at this point we don’t expect anything on any massive scale,” she said at a Thursday press conference.
“We are prepared for any threats that may emerge now or as we move forward,” said Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins.
State police are responsible for security on the Capitol grounds, though other state and city buildings are nearby. West said there are contingency plans to be sure all the buildings are protected if there are incidents, and all agencies will be in constant communication.
“If you break the law, you will be met with the full force of all our agencies,” Relford said. “You will be arrested, face trial, and potentially go to jail.”
Separately, Albany County District Attorney David A. Soares released a video saying he supports peaceful protests, but “you’re not going to like the outcome if what you’re coming with is weapons and bad intentions.”
Biden’s inaugural will be taking place under extremely high security. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced late Friday that an additional 250 New York National Guard members will be deployed to Washington, on top of the 1,000 sent last week. The U.S. Capitol has been flooded with National Guard members since the Jan. 6 attack that threatened members of Congress — who were sent into hiding — and left five people dead.
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