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Inside New York City's Elite Counterterrorist Police Unit

The 500-plus officers of the Critical Response Command protect the nation's biggest city against attacks on "soft targets" — the civilian population.
Image: Lester Holt talks to Chief James Waters, NYPD counterterrorism
Lester Holt talks to Chief James Waters, NYPD counterterrorism.NBC News

Walking through a Manhattan park on a recent summer day, the city's top counterterrorism cop and the civilian strolling with him had very different takes on the bustling crowd around them.

"I see people enjoying themselves," said NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. "What do you see?"

"I see a free and open society," answered Chief James Waters, "but I also see a vulnerability. I see an area [that] could be a soft target for a terrorist attack."

On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people died when terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center in an elaborate plot. More than 15 years after 9/11, the threat remains in the nation's biggest city, but terrorists are now using simple tactics available to any small group or lone wolf — attacks with knives, guns and motor vehicles on urban crowds.

Three days after ISIS attackers killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015, the NYPD formally deployed the first officers of the Critical Response Command, a new unit intended to protect New York against terror. Waters heads the unit, which is now more than 500 officers strong and alert to threats both high-tech and low.

Related: Hunt for Clues in New York City Bombing That Injured 29

CRC officers like Kayan Dawkins and Gregory Wallace are trained in behavior analysis, radiation detective and explosives, and deployed across the city, equipped with body armor and powerful long guns.

"Terrorism is evolving," said Dawkins, "so as law enforcement officers we have to keep up with that."

Said Wallace, "You have to be able to see who's not fitting into the crowd."

NBC News was granted unprecedented access to the CRC as officers trained for scenarios ripped from the headlines.

In their drills they focus on taking out terrorists armed with knives, guns, bombs and cars who are targeting civilians in the heart of the city — exactly what police officers have encountered in places as far-flung as Orlando, Mumbai, and Paris.

Related: Inside the NYPD's Counterterrorism Effort in Europe

"In any police department," said New York Police Commissioner James O'Neill, "you have to take a look at not just what's going on in the city, the nation — you have to take a look at what's going on worldwide."

The CRC is trained to take the offensive, even if there are already wounded civilians on the ground. The "number one goal," said Dawkins, is "stop the threat. Have to. Have to. ... Because if I don't, then more innocents will be taken."

Image: Lester Holt talks to Kayan Dawkins and Gregory Wallce
Lester Holt talks to NYPD CRC officers Kayan Dawkins (center) and Gregory Wallace (right).NBC News

New York City has been targeted by plots or attacks 23 times since 9/11. The NYPD has equipped more than 1,000 officers, including members of the CRC, with military-style weapons. As Officer Dawkins noted, the active shooters in places like Paris and Orlando had high-powered rifles.

Related: An Inside Look at the System That Cut New York City Crime

"We will be meeting them with the same or greater force," she said.

Said Officer Wallace, "The thinking is, if someone has any inkling that they want to bring harm to this city, best to go elsewhere with it. They're not going to stand a chance."