Several factors seem to have converged to account for local cops possessing the latest in riot gear, armored personnel carriers, advanced weaponry, and the like. One factor that is frequently cited is the “War on Drugs,” an unfortunate turn of phrase that gives the impression that military tactics are the only way to pursue the “battle” and that “victory” will somehow emerge.
The military draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan created a bonanza in excess military equipment. When the Army and the Marine Corps no longer need the machinery of war, what do they do with it? One option is to provide it at little or no cost to local police forces all over the country. The Defense Logistics agency reports that $4.2 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the Defense Department to domestic police agencies since 1996, including $504 million in 2011.
With all this equipment, the perceived need to use it increases. SWAT team deployments, for example, are used more and more frequently, and for more routine purposes, such as serving warrants, carrying out marijuana arrests or breaking up bar fights.
And then there is the 9/11 effect. The Department of Homeland Security was created, and the Patriot Act was passed, both in order to provide a firmer footing for the “War on Terror” — another war that can never have a victory ceremony. Now DHS provides anti-terrorism training and grants to local police. Some of this training is important, such as that which leads toward better coordination among federal, state and local authorities in the event of a dangerous incident. But it is important that everyone involved understand that the mindset should not be that of a military unit except in the most extreme circumstances.
A militarized police force, racial tensions and a lack of restraint by law enforcement is a combination that leads to untenable situations, such as those we have witnessed recently in Ferguson, Missouri. Black residents, angry over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, were confronted with a large contingent of mostly white police officers in military-type riot gear. How could this not have made a bad situation even worse? I could not help but recall the 1960s photos of black civil rights activists being pushed back by white riot police with dogs and fire hoses.
This issue is one that spans the spectrum of political viewpoints. Progressives often speak out against overreaching by police, especially when such actions are taken disproportionately toward members of minority groups. Libertarians likewise are opposed to police militarization, from a different perspective. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for constructive engagement.
My question, in essence, is why are we so afraid? So fearful that our security requires quasi-military forces in our local communities? For my part, I’d like to hold on to the precious belief that this land is still the “home of the brave.”
Linda Watt is a resident of Ivins City.