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.
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.
Across the country, SWAT teams in metropolitan areas are now deployed tens of thousands of times per year, often for routine incidents. One such instance involved a 2006 liquor inspection at a Louisiana night club. During the raid, police officers reportedly arrived wearing masks and were excessively armed. In 2010, Florida law enforcement officers in traditional SWAT gear conducted raids on barbershops. The barbers were accused of “barbering without a license.”
The military-style weapons often end up within police departments as the Pentagon winds down wars, resulting in surplus equipment. Since 2006:
- 435 armored trucks and cars have been received by police departments, according to Department of Defense records.
- A total of 44,900 night vision sights, goggles, lights, binoculars, and other accessories from military units were given to state and local law enforcement agencies.
- 93,763 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm machines guns were given to police departments and could theoretically be used on American citizens.
- 180,718 magazines (no ammo) and 533 aircraft formerly used by the military were received by local law enforcement.
- A total of 22 states were given equipment to detect buried land mines.
- Police departments that received several of the 432 surplus Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Armored Vehicles (MRAPs) include: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Arizona, Kansas, Florida, Texas, Hawaii, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma.
A heated debate ensued when MRAPs began arriving in Neenah, Wisconsin, last year, The New York Times reported. The relatively quiet town has a population of about 25,000 people and a crime rate below the national average, and had not had a homicide in at least the past five years. Many residents felt the militarization of state and local police forces blurred the lines between soldier and police officer.
“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.
Wilkinson said the equipment is necessary:
“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?