How does the world's largest police department balance the security of the spontaneous masses with the freedoms that make us who we are? The counterterrorism cops of the NYPD take us deep inside their extraordinary operation.

The tongues of native New Yorkers land heavy on consonants, and on vowels, too. On words and sentences. On poetry and prose, on dese, dem, and dose. For all the worry that television has homogenized all the fun accents out of existence, the sons of certain neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn—they still speak the hell out of all the words. Make a real meal out of them. No posh Manhattan private school diction for these guys, not on your life. And these guys here—these guys are cops, and when they're on the job, people aren't people, they are the more formal in-duh-vi-jew-wuhls, and by the time this man here, Jim Waters, chief of counterterrorism, New York Police Department, gets up the slopes and down the valleys of that word, it's picked up another syllable or two. For reference, Waters sounds a little like the old actor Broderick Crawford, who played a lot of cops. And Waters may be chief of counterterrorism now, but he started out life walking a beat in the 110 Precinct, Elmhurst, Queens, which isn't as quaint as it sounds.

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It's just after 2:00 in the afternoon on New Year's Eve, cold dappled sunlight splashes up and down Seventh Avenue, the universe's own spotlight giving God a better look at what in hell is happening down in New York. Everybody, it seems, is curious about this particular spot on the dirty globe today. Chief Waters is standing right in the middle of the street, facing north toward Central Park, keeping a close eye out as the hearties and the crazies and the curious stream from Forty-Sixth Street, take a left toward Times Square, and enter into the "chute" for screening by cops under his command. They're all here for The Show—Midnight in Times Square, baby! hollers a young Asian woman who doesn't look dressed warmly enough at all, as she dances past to join her friends. Chief Waters smiles and nods. His aide-de-camp, Captain Danny Magee, shakes his head, a bemused expression on his face. Magee's always looking to bust somebody's balls.

Capt. Danny Magee, third from left.

"Some of 'em mighta already had a few," he says. "Once they're screened and in the pens, it's hard to leave and there's nowhere to pee." He pauses, thinks about two million people—that's how many guests they're expecting tonight—with no place to pee. "They're gonna need a jar!" he says, his face erupting in a crinkly smile. If Waters is Broderick Crawford, Magee is more Jimmy Cagney. Very Brooklyn, total wiseass. Mother, wonderful woman, still lives in the house he grew up in. "Maybe a friend can hold up a sheet, so they can take turns using the jar! 'Cause they're gonna need a jar." You cannot spell jar the way Magee says jar. His voice is snappy and he is shouting a little because this intersection—Forty-Sixth and Seventh—is madness, the center of an enormous mobilization of a security apparatus that has no peer anywhere in the world in terms of civil police departments. In the name of fun and freedom of assembly, seven thousand cops are at this moment being deployed to harden a grid in the center of Manhattan between Thirty-Eighth Street and Central Park, and between Eighth Avenue and Sixth Avenue. As mass gatherings of the public go, this is the big enchilada, the Super Bowl. A couple years ago, incidentally, the city hosted an actual Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium across the way in Jersey—Chief Waters threw that party, too. "That's all we are—party planners," says Magee. "Party planners with big guns and a bomb squad." Waters smirks. "That's why we keep Danny around," he says. "For his sense of yuma."

It's not just Magee. Everybody's in pretty good humor today. The pizza guy on the block is sending a platoon into the jovial crowd with fresh hot pies. "Thirty bucks!—that's a helluva markup," says Magee. "He's making his nut for the year today." But he sure is keeping them fed in the pens. Waters says there are forty-eight of the block-long enclosures, from here all the way up toward the park. They were erected by hundreds of cops using thousands of metal barriers starting at midnight last night. Any brave souls who want to watch the ball drop are entering the grid from the east and west, and at entry points on either Sixth or Eighth avenues, they subject themselves to a handheld magnetometer that detects any ferrous metals, and maybe a pat down, a radiological detection test, random explosive-trace detection in which something that looks like litmus paper is wiped on their hand or run down the length of the zipper on their jacket, and everybody gets sniffed by a dog. They then will walk toward Seventh Avenue or Broadway, past at least one twenty-ton sand truck, two on the wider streets—each topped off with another fifteen tons of sand—blocking the street, past the row of six-foot-long, two-ton concrete blocks blocking the sidewalk. Counterterrorism cops have to pay attention and learn from what's in vogue among people who want to kill as many people as possible, and this year's innovation in mayhem has without doubt been driving a big truck into as big a crowd as possible. So today, Waters is hardening the perimeter of the grid with trucks so heavy that "ain't nothing gonna move 'em," but that have the added convenience of being portable, so at the end of the night you just drive them away. Down the block the once-screened stream of humanity goes toward the pens. They walk, silly hats on and bottled water in hand, and when they reach Seventh Avenue, they run into Chief Waters and his boys and are screened all over again. Two million people, screened twice. Magnetometer, radiological, dog. All the while, "red cell" teams of cops in plainclothes are dispersed among the crowd, trying to breach the system, probing its vulnerabilities, and "that bag can't come in here, ma'am. Ma'am, no bag," Magee says. "What's that? You can either walk out the way you just came in, or you can donate it to our growing bag collection here." Magee pulls back a tarp to reveal bins and bins of bags of all shapes and sizes and degrees of fanciness that have already been surrendered. A young woman, thinking better of the whole idea, is clawing deep into the bin to retrieve a bright-green leather bag to be on her way.

"Some of 'em mighta already had a few. Once they're screened and in the pens, it's hard to leave and there's nowhere to pee."