Ferguson Riots Spark Militarized Police Debate

Tara Dodrill

The Ferguson riots after the Michael Brown shooting have prompted a nationwide debate about the militarization of police. Videos and photos of St. Louis area police officers in MRAPs and tactical gear shocked many viewers, but the Pentagon hand-me-downs program has been going on for quite a long time. Before military tanks rolled onto the streets of Ferguson and police officers dodged Molotov cocktails, a vocal portion of America questioned the evolving militarized police presence -- but those folks were largely dismissed as paranoid preppers and Right Wing extremists who feared a too-powerful government. Now liberal politicians like Elizabeth Warren are on the same side of the police militarization debate as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

Police officers need to be able to defend themselves in order to defend the public, and dismissing the idea of another terrorism attack on American soil could spell disaster. The Boston Marathon bombing served as a stark reminder of exactly how quickly standing along a seemingly safe American street can become deadly. The center of the military equipment and gear debate now centers upon how much is too much and where should the line be drawn between police and soldiers.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol took control of the Ferguson protests on Thursday and the military equipment disappeared from view. A calm appears to have settled over the city and many hope that the scene will remain non-violent while an investigation to unearth exactly what happened between Michael Brown, and the officer to be named later today, is permitted to conclude.

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Is the United States in the midst of developing a nationalized military police force? Constitutional scholars would be quick to say no, because such a law enforcement entity would be illegal, unconstitutional, and just plain unwise. But the tens of thousands of machine guns being made available to police forces around the country might indicate just such a force could be in the works.

During the Obama administration, approximately 200,000 ammunition magazines, tens of thousands of machine guns, night vision equipment, silencers, camo gear, aircraft, and armored cars have been received by police departments around the country, according to Pentagon data quoted in The New York Times.

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The military-style weapons often end up within police departments as the Pentagon winds down wars, resulting in surplus equipment. Since 2006:

"It just seems like ramping up a police department for a problem we don't have," Shay Korittnig, a local father of two, told the newspaper. "This is not what I was looking for when I moved here, that my children would view their local police officer as an M16-toting SWAT-apparel-wearing officer."

Neenah City Councilman William Pollnow Jr. said someone had to be the first person to stand up and ask, "Why are we doing this?" Pollnow was opposed to accepting the armored vehicle. Police Chief Kevin E. Wilkinson said he understood the concerns voiced and added that at first he thought the anti-mine vehicle was too large. But, Wilkinson added, Neenah's "old armored car" could not withstand high-powered gunfire. Pollnow wants a resolution.

"I don't like it. I wish it were the way it was when I was a kid. The possibility of violence, however remote, required taking precautions. We're not going to go out there as Officer Friendly with no body armor and just a handgun and say, 'Good enough.' I hate having our community divided over a law enforcement issue like this. But we are. It drives me to my knees in prayer for the safety of this community every day. And it convinced me that this was the right thing for our community."

The police chief said he expects his officers rarely to use the MRAP, and it will only roll when the SWAT team is involved in an armed standoff or a warrant is served on "someone believed to be dangerous."

Other police chiefs agree:

"'When you explain that you're preparing for something that may never happen, they [Pentagon officials] get it,' Buchanan County, Missouri, Police Captain Tiger Parsons said. His town was recently awarded a mine-resistant truck."

South Bend, Indiana, Police Chief Ronald E. Teachmann declined a MRAP for his town. "[When] I go to schools. But I bring 'Green Eggs and Ham,'" Teachmann said.

What do you think about the Ferguson riots after the Michael Brown shooting and a militarized police force?

[Images Via: DOJ.org and Pat Dollard]

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