Showing posts with label Michael Brown. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Brown. Show all posts

Friday, August 15, 2014

Never Mind! Maybe we don't need to turn our local police departments into paramilitary tactical units

Remember Gilda Radner's "Never Mind!" routine on those long-ago Saturday Night Live skits? Gilda played the part of an elderly, irate woman who railed against public outrages as a guest editorialist on the nightly news. But she always got things mixed up. In every episode, Chevy Chase, playing the part of the news anchor, would patiently point out that she had gotten her facts wrong, Gilda would then smile benignly at the television audience and say, "Never Mind!"

Never mind about those armored personnel vehicles!
Maybe our nation has had a "Never Mind!" moment regarding an alarming trend taking place all over the United States.  Little by little, hundreds of local police departments--both large and small--have been transformed from community-focused law enforcement agencies into paramilitary units.  The men and women who used to wear caps and badges and carry .38 revolvers are now tricked out in military apparel with helmets, body armor, camouflage clothing and assault rifles.  Instead of driving Ford Crown Victorias, increasingly our police officers are tooling around in armored assault vehicles.

How did that happen?

As Elizabeth R. Beavers and Michael Shank explained in a New York Times essay, the federal government made that happen. The Defense Department has been pawning off surplus armored vehicles on local police departments, and the Department of Homeland Security (now there's a euphemism) has distributed $34 billion in "terrorism grants" to train and equip local police departments to join the war on terror.

In my own home town, the East Baton Rouge Parish Police Department proudly announced the acquisition of a 17-ton armored personnel carrier, which officials said could be used to serve warrants.  It cost the parish less than $20,000 to purchase the behemoth from the Defense Department, about the price of a Honda Civic.  One official was quoted as saying the deal was simply too good to turn down!  Apparently it had only been driven to church once a week by a little old lady in Iraq.

The recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri has called us to our senses, or it least the turmoil there forces us to examine the wisdom of transforming local police departments into paramilitary tactical units.  As everyone knows who has been following the news, Ferguson's African American population erupted in anger after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, who apparently was a suspect in a petty robbery.  Rioting and looting broke out, and Ferguson's police department morphed almost instantaneously from a small-down law enforcement agency into a paramilitary unit complete with assault rifles, armored vehicles, and at least one sniper.

This was never a good idea, and I am sorry it took the shooting of Michael Brown to demonstrate the idiocy of this policy.   We should have woken up to this issue after the Boston Marathon bombing, when local police departments descended on Watertown Square with all sorts of paramilitary accouterments and reined gunfire down on a sleeping Boston suburb.  It is true that one police officer was wounded  in the exchange of bullets, but it was later determined that he was shot by "friendly fire" (another great euphemism), not by a terrorist.

I realize that the bad guys are better armed than they used to be, and I admit that terrorism needs to be taken very seriously. But does Ferguson, Missouri need an armored vehicle?

Personally, I think we would all be safer if we turned security over to Barney Fife, who only had one bullet for his revolver.  Let's bring back Barney's approach to law enforcement, although I am willing to upgrade his single bullet to one that will pierce armor.

Give this man an armor-piercing bullet!


Elizabeth R. Beavers and Michael Shank. Get the Military Off of Main Street. New York Times, August 15, 2014, p. A21.