Misbegotten priorities and police militarization

August 18, 2014

It says something about our misbegotten priorities that, as the school year starts, there are almost certainly hundreds of teachers around the country reaching into their own wallets to pay for classroom supplies that their cash-strapped districts simply can’t afford.

At the same time, the Pentagon has been so overburdened with bloated budgets, arsenals left over from two recent overseas conflicts, and lingering panics over drugs and terrorism, that they are handing surplus gear over to local police departments. Like something more out of “Robocop” than “Adam 12,” police in many places can now deploy tactical vehicles, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, M-16 assault rifles and a whole bazaar of other battlefield-ready wares in the course of their duties.

To paraphrase the bumper sticker, the Pentagon will never, ever have to hold a bake sale.

This militarization of the American police has forcefully landed in our living rooms in recent days thanks to the unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. following the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. Protests by residents were met with a wildly disproportionate response by police, who fired tear gas, donned riot gear and fired rubber bullets with, according to some reports, little or no provocation. It made a community in the heart of the country look more like Kabul, Baghdad or Beirut.

But, just like the old theatrical saw that says a gun must be used if it is placed onstage, it seems police feel compelled to utilize these wares whether a situation really calls for it or not. The New York Times recently reported that officers in Louisiana put on masks and were heavily armed when they dropped in at a nightspot in 2006 for a liquor inspection, and, four years later, police in Florida used similar tactics when they carried out raids on barbershops “that mostly led only to charges of ‘barbering without a license.’”

One can only imagine the reaction of patrons as they were getting a trim or thumbing a copy of Field & Stream when that crew made their entrance.

In the aftermath of the confrontations in Ferguson, an exceptionally rare bipartisan consensus is developing that the program that puts Pentagon castoffs in the hands of local police should either be scaled back or eliminated. The American Civil Liberties Union has sharply criticized it, and Attorney General Eric Holder said that he is “deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message” and that police should not rely on “unnecessarily extreme displays of force.”

On the other side of the aisle, former Texas GOP Congressman Ron Paul, a rock-ribbed libertarian, said on MSNBC Monday that police having such equipment at their disposal encouraged them to overreact, while Duncan Hunter, a Republican who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, told Politico that he didn’t want to end the program, but sharply curtail it.

“Certain resources are designed for a military mission – and it should stay that way,” he said.

No one is suggesting that police in America transform themselves into genial, nonthreatening figures of goodwill in the mold of Andy Griffith, nor that they model themselves after British bobbies who only carry wooden truncheons as they walk the beat.

Unfortunately, our streets are too awash in lethal weaponry for that. But we should seriously question police officers being transformed into commandos, often with little training along the way.

After all, they are there to protect and serve, not to protect and intimidate.



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