By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - As tens of thousands of revelers gathered in New York's Times Square on New Year's Eve, authorities were bracing for renewed protests over the use of excessive force by police, capping a year of tension over racial relations across the United States.
While security is always tight in Times Square on New Year's Eve, especially since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, extra precautions were put in place on Wednesday to prevent violence at the famed midtown Manhattan crossroads.
The year 2014 was marked by months of protests over the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in Missouri and New York.
Tensions in the city sharpened nearly two weeks ago when a gunman killed two officers sitting in a patrol car in Brooklyn in an apparent act of retribution against law enforcement.
New York Police Commissioner William Bratton said more than 80 threats against police had been made on social media sites over the past week, leading to at least 15 arrests.
"Any threat against my officers will be dealt with very quickly, very effectively," he said at a news conference on Wednesday in Times Square. "We're not going to let any of them go by the board."
Bratton said there had been no specific terror threats made against the Times Square festivities.
Hours before the giant crystal ball was to drop at midnight, bomb-sniffing dogs and counter terrorism units joined uniformed officers posted on the streets around Times Square. More officers were stationed on rooftops and at nearby subway stations, aiming to monitor an area that comprises at least eight blocks of midtown Manhattan.
Overall, thousands of police officers were working in the area, said New York Police Chief of Department James O'Neill.
Joining the uniformed police, plainclothes officers blended into the crowds of fun-seekers, who were enclosed inside metal-gated corrals set up to control a throng that officials estimate would reach 1 million people despite frigid weather.
As usual on New York's Eve, manhole covers were sealed, backpacks were banned and nearby subway service was halted.
"Times Square is going to be a very safe place to be tonight," O'Neill said at the Times Square news conference.
Organizers of a protest dubbed "Rock in the New Year with Resistance to Police Murder" handed out signs in Times Square and urged people to form a "flash mob" at the stroke of midnight. The idea is to have revelers pull the placards from under their coats and chant "Black Lives Matter!" and "We Can't Breathe!," two rallying cries of protesters.
"New Year's Eve needs to usher in an escalation of resistance to the police murder of black and brown people," said Steve Yip, an organizer with Stop Mass Incarceration Network.
Earlier, the city denied a permit to allow the protest group to stage a planned march from Union Square to Times Square at 10 p.m. EST (0300 GMT), but Yip said he was still fighting for official permission. If denied, protesters might walk the route by sidewalk, which would not require a permit, he said.
"We must be in Times Square on New Year's Eve. It is the place to be, the crossroads of the world," protest organizer Travis Morales said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall. "A billion people will be watching New Year's Eve in New York."
Revelers, many of whom were not New Yorkers, seemed unconcerned at the prospect of protests and oblivious to the bolstered security.
"There was a few people that came around with protest signs and we were like, 'Yeah, whatever, we don't care.' We just want to have fun," said Phoebe Iacono, 20, a tourist from Sydney, Australia.
She said she had been waiting since 9 a.m. in the 32 degree Fahrenheit (0 C) air to assure a prime viewing spot of the ball drop. "I can't feel my toes," she said.
Next to her stood Aaliya Mapp, a 19-year-old college student from Philadelphia. "This is not the time to get serious, you know," she said. "It's time to celebrate."
The ambush of the two officers, Wenjian Liu, whose funeral will be held on Sunday, and his partner Rafael Ramos, whose funeral took place last weekend, was carried out by a gunman who vowed to avenge the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The shooting deepened the rift between the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had offered qualified support for the protesters.
In keeping with tradition, de Blasio will preside over the ball drop in Times Square, pressing a ceremonial button that will send the sphere on its descent.
In a lighthearted poll taken by Quinnipiac University, only 8 percent of New York state voters said they would like to spend New Year's Eve with the mayor. The winner was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with 37 percent, it said.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Frank McGurty, Jonathan Oatis, Dan Grebler and Andrew Hay)