Authorities set up checkpoints at three bridges on Staten Island and locked down U.S. Coast Guard facilities Friday afternoon after a retired cop witnessed people on Staten Island holding what appeared to be assault rifles, sources said.
The lockdown order was soon lifted at Coast Guard Sector New York, at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, New York. Heavily armed Coast Guardsmen could be seen securing that facility as well as nearby Coast Guard Station New York, a small-boat station less than a mile away.
Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook, at Fort Hancock in Highlands, New Jersey, was also on high alert.
Fort Wadsworth and Fort Hancock are normally open to the public as part of the National Park Service's Gateway National Recreation Area.
The security scare began when a retired police officer took photos of several people holding what looked like assault weapons while packing up two minivans at the parking lot of Midland Beach on Staten Island. The retired officer sent the photos to the NYPD's Intelligence Bureau as a precaution. Police then internally circulated a memo showing those photos as well as two New Jersey license plate numbers. An image of that memo leaked on social media.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller said in a statement that forensic experts examined the photos.
"The preliminary opinion of these experts was that the weapons in the pictures strongly resemble replicas of firearms used in 'paintball' games," Miller said in the statement. He also said that NYPD and FBI investigators conducted interviews in New Jersey and found out that the owner of one of the vehicles in question had planned to play paintball Friday.
Paintball, pellet, and BB guns are illegal in New York City.
Heavily armed NYPD officers had set up checkpoints on the approach to the outbound Outerbridge Crossing, Goethals Bridge, and Bayonne Bridge, which connect Staten Island to New Jersey. Officers appeared to be visually checking vehicles that were heading to New Jersey. The checkpoints caused traffic to back up for miles on the West Shore Expressway and the Staten Island Expressway all the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Police officers were also seen driving around the parking lot of the Staten Island Mall.
Security in New York City is heightened because of the arrival of President Obama on Friday.
A day earlier, a gunman opened fire at two military facilities in Tennessee, killing four Marines. Local police officers responding to the gunfire shot and killed the gunman, the FBI said. Federal authorities are investigating that shooting as a possible act of terrorism.