(Header image © Comedy Central)
KEENE, NH – With the events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, over the past several weeks, the spotlight has once again fallen on the subject of police militarization in America. As someone who has historically taken the side of police in most conversations, I confess that I have found myself unable to articulate any type of reasonable case for why our civilian police units require the type of advanced military transport systems and weaponry normally reserved for the active battlefield. As a Boy Scout in my youth, our motto was always, “Be Prepared.” But I wonder if “preparation” ever has a limit? In an episode of his popular television show, “The Colbert Report”, humorist Stephen Colbert confronts the same question.
The passions on this subject run high and, in my research, I find little in the way of middle ground when it comes to the opinions on each side. For the police, this is about public safety, quality of life, and effective preparation in the face of increasing violence in our communities. They wish to be protected from all conceivable threats while responding to incidents involving an unknown number of perpetrators and an unknown level of potential threats. It’s understandable that they would seek to be as well-equipped for such events as possible.
Jefferson County Sheriff John Burns said the vehicle hasn’t been used, but it gives him some peace of mind. Thirty years ago, he rarely saw standoffs or hostage situations, but they now happen fairly regularly, a trend he attributes to population growth. “I agree it’s big, it’s intimidating, but again, it’s going to save lives,” he predicted.
For the opposition, it is also about public safety and quality of life, but with an added element: the desire to be free of the fear of an over-reaching police presence – otherwise known as a police-state. The fact of the matter is, violent crime is declining in America.. However, following the events of September 11, 2001, our citizenship has faced the biggest threat of its entire existence – the gradual and voluntary erosion of our most basic civil liberties under the guise of enhanced “protection”. Gone are the days when a police officer required justifiable cause to detain you and require you to identify yourself. Gone are the days when you were legally protected against unwarranted searches. Reading through the news every day, it is clear that more and more police departments are taking the stance of “Better to ask forgiveness than permission”. More and more police officers are becoming adversarial in their approach to the members of their community, seeing each person they encounter as a potential threat (no, I don’t have facts and figures to back this up – just good, old-fashioned anecdotal evidence from reading hundreds of news stories every day from all over the nation). We have created a policing system of “us against them” and that is an unfortunate – and potentially dangerous, as seen in Ferguson – dynamic to have in a community.
But, to the issue at hand. Is military equipment truly necessary in small-town America? The answer, to me, is a resounding “NO!” Tax-funded acquisitions of military hardware by civilian departments that is then used against the very taxpayers who pay for the services provided by police departments is unacceptable no matter which way you slice it. Rather, we should have a centralized tactical response unit to be called in ONLY under the most extreme situations. Make no mistake, the average police officer is already an individual of great courage, high intelligence, and above-average training in tactical operations, firearms, and hand-to-hand combat. This is their job. This is what they are trained for. And, under pressure, they are virtually unmatched. The average criminal, on the other hand, is desperate, panicked, and not much of a tactical match for police. Very rarely do police come up against a modern-day Professor Moriarty. Very rarely are they facing the kinds of pre-planned, strategically-sound and indefensible criminal acts portrayed in every summer’s blockbuster movies. Kidnappings, hostage-taking, robberies, drug deals….The threats of today, in reality, are not much different than the threats of sixty years ago when police did their job with little more than a revolver and a squad car. So, just because the equipment is there, doesn’t mean it must be used – especially against civilians.
However, because the equipment is there, it gets used. And it gets used in the worse ways possible. Under the guise of “crowd control” in Ferguson, as a show of force in Toronto, as a response to a simple non-police-related shooting in Manchester, NH. The manufacturer is on the record as stating that these personnel carriers “save lives”…
When a Lenco Bearcat shows up at a crime scene where a suicidal killer is holding hostages, it doesn’t show up with a cannon. It shows up with a negotiator. Our trucks save lives. They save police lives. And I can’t help but think that the people who are trying to stop this just don’t think police officers’ lives are worth saving.
…but you can’t help but wonder why the negotiator has to show up in a tank, for crying out loud.
Fortunately, here in my small town of Goffstown, New Hampshire, our local police are very community-oriented. From annual “Night Out” events, to hosting an Open House at the station, to the bicycle officers who stop to chat with people on the street, we’re very blessed to have an open and fair department helping to protect our community. But not every community is so fortunate and it is time that we, as a citizenry, took a united stand and reminded the police that they are civil servants charged with operating in the service of the citizens. Let the military be the military. Let the National Guard be the National Guard. And let civilian police be civilian police.
About the Author: Jeremy Jones is the Senior Marketing Strategist for 603 Media Group. Primarily tasked with the challenges of keeping our small business running, Jeremy also occasionally branches out into public speaking, blogging, website design and raising his son to not be another one of “those damn kids”.