By Corey Friedman
August 26, 2014
“Weapons of war have no place on our streets.”
When President Barack Obama uttered those words on Feb. 4, 2013, he was referring to taking measures toward gun control.
But since then, civil libertarians have thrown those words back at the government, pointing out the weapons of war used by domestic police departments every day.
Less than three months after the president’s speech, we saw weapons of war rolling down the streets of Watertown, Massachusetts as militarized police searched door to door — pulling residents out of their homes at gunpoint and searching them without warrants — in the hunt for a scrawny teenager wanted in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing.
The scene this month in Ferguson, Missouri has been similar.
Canisters of tear gas were lobbed into the streets and even into front yards to quell the unrest following a police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager.
Police snipers were taking aim at protesters from atop armored vehicles. Journalists were being threatened with arrest and even death. Some had assault rifles pointed at them.
Local agencies have been outfitted with military gear through the Pentagon for the past two decades. What does Stanly County, North Carolina need two armored vehicles and a grenade launcher for?
The crime rate there is half of what it is in Richmond County, yet there are no mine-resistant vehicles rolling through Rockingham.
Police Chief Billy Kelly said he doesn’t see the need for one here, but added, “That’s not to say another agency doesn’t see the need.”
We fail to see the need to use a mine-resistant vehicle for policing duties. Unless, of course, we’re in a police state.
Washington Post journalist Radley Balko doesn’t think we’re there yet.
In his book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” Balko answers the question, “How did we get here?” — an era when police officers in some jurisdictions dress and act like they’re in a war zone.
In the introduction, he asks, “How did a country pushed into revolution by protest and political speech become one where protests are met with flash grenades, pepper spray and platoons of riot teams dressed like Robocops?”
Throughout the book, Balko outlines the history of the gradual militarization of civilian police, which was ramped up with the War on Drugs.
He also details botched raids based on bad tips and poor investigations, massive shows of force for miniscule amounts of marijuana and SWAT teams being used to bust up consensual poker games and enforce occupational licensing.
“This is not an ‘anti-cop’ book,” he writes. “If anything, this is an anti-politician book.”
“Bad cops are the product of bad policy,” he continues. “And policy is ultimately made by politicians. And a bad system loaded with bad incentives will unfailingly produce bad cops.”
After all, as many police officers may tell you, they may personally disagree with some legislation, but they took an oath to uphold and enforce the law.
Police need the proper tools to do their job, and a hostage situation or mass shooting may call for tactical gear like helmets, shields and bulletproof vests and weapons like long-range sniper rifles. The key is good judgment and proportionality. Just as a bazooka is a poor substitute for a flyswatter, flash-bang grenades and no-knock raids for small amounts of marijuana seem to heighten rather than de-escalate the danger.
We agree with local law enforcement leaders that community policing — a proactive strategy that forges trust between police and residents — is the right way forward.
“No, America today isn’t a police state,” Balko concludes. “Far from it. But it would be foolish to wait until it becomes one to get concerned.”
It’s time to put the “peace” back in peace officer.