Editorial: Tanked: Police militarization is excessive

PoliceTankPeople generally expect police officers to be armed. However, there is a growing sentiment in America that some weapons in the hands of police officers are unnecessary and, in the worst cases, are used to intimidate or reinforce positions of power.

Armored trucks lined the streets in Ferguson, Mo., as a result of citizens exhibiting disappointment in their police force.

Americans watched from home, curious how things could have escalated so quickly. A city that reminded so many of their own had turned into a hostile situation with enforced curfews.

It was unsettling to watch and some people wondered how easily a similar situation could develop in their own hometown. The response to protests and demonstrators with military-like force that seemed to silence crowds more than keep them orderly was disconcerting.

In response to critics who called Ferguson’s police response overdone, Col. Jon Belmar, a St. Louis County officer, justified the police department’s measures in a USA Today article.

“Had we not had the ability to protect officers with those vehicles, I am afraid that we would have to engage people with our own gun fire. I really think having the armor gave us the ability not to have pulled one trigger,” Belmar said.

As Belmar puts it, the need for this type of armor is to protect officers from threats by unruly members of the community.

However, civilians are statistically more likely to die by an officer than an officer by a civilian. According to statistics collected by the FBI, in 2012 there were 410 justifiable homicides by officers. That same year, 95 law enforcement officers were killed in line-of-duty incidents, with 47 of those deaths declared accidents.

In 2005, the number of justifiable homicides by officers was 341, showing about a 20.23 percent increase in that seven-year period.
While the number of justifiable homicides is on the rise, so is the presence of military equipment in small towns where the role of a police officer seems to have gone beyond the goal of “to serve and protect” and now lends itself more to the role of keeping citizens on their toes.

One could argue the overmilitarization of officers disseminates feelings of distrust among the public that only heighten tensions between officers and citizens. An already existing circle of distrust has intensified.

According to a report by the LA Times, images of military force by officers in Ferguson led to the concerned citizens in Davis, Calif., demanding their police force return a $689,000 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle given to the force through a U.S. Defense Department program.

This same type of armored vehicle pushed out of Davis has made its way to Waco. The McLennan County Sheriff’s Office acquired such a vehicle five months ago. It was free to the county through a federal program. Sheriff Parnell McNamara said the vehicle would likely be used in critical SWAT situations and high-water rescues.

But the Pentagon program that gave cities like Waco and Davis access to militarized armor may be going too far. The Associated Press reported Sunday that police departments that have been censured for civil rights violations are also allowed to apply for advanced lethal weaponry.

Drug cartels are a growing threat in small border towns and terrorist attacks on innocent Americans seem to grow in their mechanical sophistication and brutality with every attack.

Protection for citizens in dire situations is clearly needed, but military equipment for local officials can’t be the middle ground.
This isn’t a discussion that has to end on the extreme of any side. The solution isn’t to remove all military equipment from local officials and the answer also isn’t to continue using cities as dumping sites for used weaponry fit for international wars. Perhaps the problem is as a society we think in extremes and reject restrictions.

Looking forward in anticipation of finding a middle ground, the hope is to not rely on the “good cop, bad cop” divergence that has existed for too long and to just see police officers as police officers who have jobs, not agendas.

Fewer armored tanks might help get us there sooner.