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Gov. Hochul rolls back big guns in National Guard NYC subway bag searches

NEW YORK — Gov. Kathy Hochul has pulled back the big guns in her subway safety surge, ordering the National Guard not to carry military-grade assault rifles when they check riders’ bags for weapons.

Many of the 750 troops Hochul deployed Wednesday to check riders’ backpacks hauling laptops or school books or bags carrying groceries carried M4 carbines, military assault rifles whose 5.56mm rounds can defeat some body armor.

Unlike their civilian counterpart, the AR-15, the M4s are capable of automatic fire.

After a flurry of news coverage showing the rifle-carrying Guard members checking straphangers’ totes at Grand Central and Penn Station, the governor ordered the troops to carry out their work without their large guns. A Hochul spokesperson told the Daily News the order was issued “immediately after the deployment” of the Guard for bag checks.

Hochul’s order to stow the long guns followed photos on news sites and social media showing well-armed soldiers checking riders’ property. It also came amid concern from civil libertarians that the governor’s subway safely plan is militarizing public transit.

The order took time to implement — soldiers were seen carrying the rifles well into Thursday.

But by Friday evening rush hour not a single long gun was visible among the dozen soldiers and law enforcement officers at the entrance to the No. 4, 5, 6 and 7 trains below Grand Central Terminal.

At Penn Station, a mass of law enforcement officers and Guard members stood near the entrance to the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 trains, all wearing only sidearms.

A few hundred feet away in the Long Island Rail Road concourse, two Guard members stood before a storefront. One carried an M4.

“We’re with Empire Shield, but we’re supporting the bag checking,” said the Guard member with the rifle. Joint Task Force Empire Shield is a long-running task force that regularly deploys National Guard members to transit hubs.

The Guard member acknowledged that the long-guns had been banished from the bag-check areas. “That’s why we’re standing far way from them,” he said.

Whether they carried rifles or not, the Guard soldiers’ presence in the subway system concerned some.

“No matter what weapons they’re carrying, a Guardsman is still a Guardsman,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

“It’s incredibly irresponsible and a chilling symbol,” said Cahn, adding that he worried about “the normalization of militarized tactics” in the transit system.

Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, agreed.

“Treating our public transit system like a war zone is an unnecessary overreaction based on fear, not facts,” she said in a statement.

“Deploying military personnel to the subways will not make New Yorkers feel safe,” she said “It will, unfortunately, create a perfect storm for tension, escalation and further criminalization of Black and Brown New Yorkers.”

The M4 carbine is standard issue for many members of the U.S. military, and the weapons are fielded by most police tactical units, including the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit and the New York State Police.

The weapons aren’t wholly foreign to the city’s transit system.

Well-armed Guard troops are routinely deployed with M4s to the main concourses at Grand Central Terminal, the Oculus at World Trade Center, and other locations as part of the Empire Shield joint task force that began after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and is charged with deterring national security threats.

A New York Guard spokesman told The News that the troops deployed at subway station bag-checks were bound by similar use-of-force rules to the Empire Shield task force — deadly force is authorized in cases of self-defense or defense of another person.

Guard members are not law enforcement officers. If they see a crime while deployed in the subway, they cannot make an arrest, the spokesman said — though the law does allow them to detain a suspect until law enforcement arrives.

The Guard members — as well as State and MTA Police officers — are playing second fiddle to the NYPD, which remains in charge of subway security, transit officials said.

NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell posted posted on social media, “Our transit system is not a ‘war’ zone!” and noted that subway bag checks have been a regular part of NYPD operations for more than 15 years.

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(New York Daily News reporter Tim Balk contributed.)

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