Around 800 police officers will descend on the Turning Stone Resort in Verona, New York, this week to attend the New York Tactical Officers Association Conference. Over three days, officers can attend dozens of workshops designed to prepare them for combat: there are training modules for the AR-15 rifle, a seminar on how to hide from a sniper in an urban environment, and several workshops on the Israeli martial art Krav-Maga.
On the last day of the conference, Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst for the Clarion Project, will lecture about terrorism for six hours in a room that seats 700. Mauro is considered to be an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist by the Southern Poverty Law Center— a characterization he vigorously disputes.
The conference, which is sponsored by the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, the maker of stun guns Taser International, and the teargas manufacturer Combine Systems, among others, is not open to the press or the public. But the event is drawing sharp criticism both for its promotion of military-style police training and equipment, and for the role given to Mauro and the Clarion Project.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has written to New York Police Commissioner William Bratton to make sure no NYPD officers attend. "Mauro's resume disqualifies him," wrote CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. "We urge you to ensure that NYPD personnel are warned of the conspiracy theories promoted by the featured speaker."
Mauro is a regular guest on Fox News, where he provides analysis and commentary on Islamic terrorism. He's long warned about active Muslim terror training camps in the United States, and has argued that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the Republican Party.
In an email to VICE News, Mauro said that he promotes an "adult conversation" about the relationship between Islam and terrorism. He also said that CAIR's letter was insulting to law enforcement because it assumed they were "gullible and ignorant enough to be suckered into wild bigotry."
"Law enforcement are critical thinkers who don't need CAIR to tell them what they should and should not hear," Mauro said. He pointed VICE News toward a long list of professional endorsements, including from conservative TV personalities Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs and progressive radio host Thom Hartmann.
The presentation at the conference, he said, could never be mistaken for anti-Muslim. "[It] highlights how Muslims have contributed to national security, as well as the danger posed by anti-Muslim violent extremists — which is part of the reason why it is so ridiculous for anyone to claim that I, or my presentations, are anti-Muslim," he said. Mauro has in fact publicly opposed, in an appearance on Fox News, Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the US.
Still, Mauro's career trajectory intersects with organizations and individuals who are considered to be leading Islamophobes, and his front-and-center role in the Tactical Officers' Conference is provoking protest.
"When the NYPD associates itself with Islamophobic extremists like Mauro, as a Muslim in NYC, I feel my community is under attack," said Uruj Sheikh, an activists with the War Resisters League, which is protesting the conference along with Black Lives Matter Upstate New York, the Arab American Association of New York, and a coalition of other activist groups. They plan to hold a press conference on the second day of the expo outside the Syracuse police headquarters, to raise the alarm about Mauro, and protest the military-style policing the event appears to promote.
According to Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center in New York, activist concerns about Mauro are well founded. "It's totally inappropriate for anyone associated with the Clarion Project to train law enforcement on anything to do with terrorism or Islam," she said. "[Mauro has] penned numerous anti-Muslim pieces and takes the absurd view that there are Muslim no-go zones in the US."
'It's totally inappropriate for anyone associated with the Clarion Project to train law enforcement on anything to do with terrorism or Islam.'
Before working at Clarion, Mauro worked for Front Page Mag, a conservative news website founded by David Horowitz. Horowitz has been called the "godfather" of the anti-Muslim movement by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and an "anti-Muslim" activist by the Anti-Defamation League. Mauro's current employer, the Clarion Project, bills itself as a "non-profit organization dedicated to exposing the dangers of Islamist extremism." It has produced a number of high-profile films about terrorism that the Southern Poverty Law Center characterized as "anti-Muslim."
Mauro has also participated in conferences and events with ACT for America, which crusades against Sharia law and has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For his part, Mauro criticized the Law Center for muddling the line between good-faith disagreement and bigotry. "[It] equates those that criticize Islamism — the radical politicized interpretation of Islam opposed by most Muslims — with bigotry toward Muslims," he said.
This is not the first time the NYPD's association with Clarion has generated controversy. In 2012, the NYPD showed a Clarion film, The Third Jihad: Radical Islam's Vision For America, to more than a thousand officers during a counterterrorism training. After the Village Voice raised questions about the film's anti-Muslim tenor, Patel with the Brennan Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request to unearth exactly how many NYPD officers had watched it. Under pressure, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg said showing the film was a mistake. The police commissioner at the time, Raymond Kelly, who appeared in the film as an expert, eventually conceded that its premise — that "much of Muslim leadership here in America" are trying to "infiltrate and dominate" the US — was "wacky" and "objectionable."
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It's unclear to what extent the NYPD will be involved in the tactical conference, and how many NYPD officers will attend Mauro's talk. According to the event's public agenda, several NYPD officers will be trainers and presenters during the event. The Syracuse Police Department has also confirmed that some of its officers will be in attendance.
The NYPD did not respond to requests by VICE News to further clarify its role in the conference. The NYPD's Muslim Officers Association said it wasn't aware of the event, and declined to comment further.
Aside from Mauro's presentation, the event is also drawing criticism for pushing military-style training and equipment on police departments at a time when the militarization of law enforcement is under scrutiny.
During last year's protests in Ferguson, Missouri, local police took to the streets in camouflage and deployed armored vehicles and military tactics. Afterward, President Barack Obama promised that the federal government would try to minimize the flow of military-style gear to local police.
"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling like there's an occupying force — as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them," the president said at the time, adding that military gear has the potential to "alienate and intimidate residents and make them feel scared."
But Pete Kraska, a professor and chair of graduate studies at the Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies, said the military gear continues to flow unabated, thanks in part to conferences like the one in Verona.
Kraska, who has testified before the Senate about the dangers of militarized police, says his research shows that deployment of "paramilitary" police units has increased 20-fold between the 1980s and 2010. Over the last six years, departments have stopped disclosing that sort of data, but the ACLU estimates that police across the country execute 50,000-80,000 SWAT deployments annually. Kraska has documented a steady uptick in military-style raids in residential communities, and the regular deployment of military-grade vehicles and equipment during public protests.
The flow of military equipment to police is not driven by genuine demand, Kraska argues, but rather by the savvy marketing and an increasingly cozy relationship between departments and suppliers. "Militarization is very much tied into the for-profit industry," he said. In the case of the New York Tactical Officer Association Conference, the group brags that it has extended invitations to every SWAT and crisis negotiation team in the country, in addition to every single "state, local and federal law enforcement and corrections agency in the Northeast."
This year's event at the Turning Stone Resort in Verona is the 10th annual New York Tactical Officer Association Conference; most years the event sells out completely. Ali Issa, a national organizer with the War Resisters League, wants the conference to be cancelled. "[It] features two drivers of what could be called 'the fear industry,'" he said. "Islamophobia, and weapons dealers — they feed off each other."
The Tactical Association did not respond to request from VICE News for comments or details about the conference.
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro