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Over-Militarization is Old News

Recently, the national news media seemed surprised when the local police in Ferguson fielded military-type uniforms, weapons, and vehicles to control rioting stemming from lawful protests. After the media questioned the “over-militarization” of the police, the White House announced a total review of the “appropriateness” of sharing surplus military equipment. The nature of the media and White House observations suggested that top-level government and news media officials had been unaware of the federal “hand-down” policy, which has been in effect since 2001.   

The trend toward “militarization” of police equipment began shortly after the terror attacks of 2001. Homeland security experts knew that the fundamentalists who brought us 9-11 would try to mount subsequent attacks someday. Since every terror begins as a local event, the logic behind this strategy made a great deal of sense, and the feds began to help local first responders become as well-equipped as possible. Congress made billions of grant dollars available while authorizing the sharing of surplus equipment and supplies with Hometown U.S.A.

This approach was no different than the policy used in the 1960s and 1970s when the federal government utilized Civil Defense to share high volumes of Vietnam-era military assets (including aircraft and armored personnel carriers) with the local law enforcement.

As is the case with any national policy, even with oversight in place, some abuse may have occurred in more recent times with some agencies getting more “stuff” than they needed, others getting items they didn’t need, and others getting nothing at all. Training grants now appear to have been either inadequate or lacking.

After 9-11, local law enforcement took the homeland security threat seriously enough to begin acquiring all things military including uniforms, equipment, supplies and vehicles. 

Vendors and suppliers jumped at the chance to market “military stuff” to the police at conferences, in catalogs, and via the Internet. As federal, state, county and local uniforms across the land became more militaristic, the military draw-down began in two theatres of war, making more “stuff” available.

Strictly from the standpoint of officer safety and the threat of terror attacks, all of this makes some sense. From the standpoint of community policing, however, a better job could have been done of educating the public before the confrontation began in Ferguson. In a democracy, where there will always be some tension between the people and the police, law enforcement should error in favor of transparency whenever lawfully able to do so.

When the national news media declares that they were “surprised” by the “military-like response” of the police in Ferguson, however, one has to be a bit skeptical. The national news, entertainment and game industries and cop-show producers have been depicting local cops in military garb for years. Don’t they watch their own “sight-bites” and productions? Had the media addressed this issue before feigning “shock” in Missouri, perhaps law enforcement could have been prompted to do a better job of alerting citizens about exactly what might occur if civil unrest developed in Hometown U.S.A.   

  

So where do things go from here? Do the feds take back all this “stuff” while chiefs and sheriffs order a return to more traditional uniform styles? Probably not, but it is vitally important that the White House invite all of the primary stakeholders, including the local police, to the table when future discussions about the “over-militarization” of the police occur. Hopefully, whatever meets the “appropriate” test in terms of the high standards of political correctness will also meets the practical needs of homeland security. 

 

Chief J.T. McBride, M.P.A. and C.L.E.E., has taught community policing at Lakeland Community College for over 25 years. He may be reached at jmcbride@lakelandcc.edu.


Published in Law and Order, Oct 2014

Rating : Not Yet Rated


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