Armored vehicles roll down the street as men with assault rifles — wearing flak vests and helmets — stand nearby.
The air is filled with clouds of smoke as canisters of gas are fired all around.
Journalists are threatened with capture and death at gunpoint. Some are even arrested.
This isn’t a military action in Afghanistan, Iraq or Israel.
It’s the police in Ferguson, Missouri, attempting to quell the outrage following the Aug. 8 shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer.
Last week, Americans got a glimpse of a trend that has been rising rapidly over the past decade: the militarization of domestic police forces.
In his 2013 book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” award-winning journalist Radley Balko outlines the evolution of police from Officer Friendly walking a neighborhood beat to looking like what some people compare to as the Stormtroopers of “Star Wars.”
Balko writes at The Watch, a blog for the Washington Post featuring cases of police militarization, SWAT team blunders and malicious prosecution. He has previously written for The Huffington Post and Reason Magazine.
He is considered one of the country’s top experts on militarization and has been busy with television appearances the past two weeks.
“Police today are armed, dressed, trained and conditioned like soldiers,” Balko writes in the conclusion of his book. “They’re given greater protections from civil and criminal liability than normal citizens.”
Balko lays part of the blame on the War on Drugs, which unofficially began in the late ’60s.
“They’re permitted to violently break into homes, often at night, to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual acts,“ he continues. “Negligence and errors in judgment that result in needless terror, injury and death are rarely held accountable.”
“Citizens who make similar errors under the same circumstances almost always face criminal charges, usually felonies.”
Richmond County Sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr. said police accountability is “very important.”
“The community is looking for us to be honorable, professional, trustworthy, loyal and committed to public safety,” he said.
“We should not be put on a pedestal,” he said. “We’re human, too. We make mistakes, too. It’s how we react to those mistakes.”
Many police departments across North Carolina and the country have acquired military surplus equipment through the Pentagon’s 1033 program.
According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon “has supplied police departments across the country with more than $4.3 billion in gear since 1997, including $449 million in 2013.”
A recent map on the New York Times’ website shows Richmond County has received 10 assault rifles and one night vision piece since the program began.
Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly —“to protect officer safety”— wouldn’t say how many rifles his department picked up.
“We give our officers the tools they need to do their jobs safely and protect the people they serve,” he said.
“We don’t just rely on weaponry,” Kelly said, adding, “They’re here in case we do need them.”
Kelly said the tools included in the officers’ arsenal — other than guns, batons and handcuffs — include proper training on how to de-escalate a situation.
He said the RPD has not applied for an armored vehicle because,” I haven’t seen the need to.”
“That’s not to say another agency doesn’t see the need,” he added.
Kelly mentioned incidents where police may need to be heavily armed, citing a case in California where bank robbers were wearing body armor.
“The fact that this is Rockingham doesn’t mean we won’t have those situations here,” he said.
Agencies in Orange County have obtained three armored vehicles in addition to a collection of pistols and rifles. Nearby Stanly County boasts 20 assault rifles, 11 pistols, five shotguns, two armored vehicles and a grenade launcher. Harnett County has a mine-resistant vehicle and 48 pieces of body armor.
The Pentagon program isn’t the only way law enforcement officers can get their hands on military-grade gear.
The Department of Homeland Security allows police and sheriffs’ departments to apply for armored vehicles called a BearCat. The BearCat is an eight-ton assault truck featuring gun ports, a battering ram attachment and tear gas nozzle, with an option for a gun turret on top.
Jacksonville police applied for a BearCat last October with little opposition.
But a New Hampshire city caused quite a stir when it requested one last summer.
The reasons listed on the application for needing such a vehicle included “threats” from sovereign citizens, the Occupy movement and participants in the Free State Project.
The latter has a goal to get 20,000 libertarian-minded individuals to move to New Hampshire to create a free society.
It’s just not city and town departments amping up their arsenals.
In 2013, Ohio State University acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle.
Balko writes that military contractors are now starting to market their products to domestic police agencies, creating a police-industrial complex.
The military mindset doesn’t seem to be as strong in Richmond County as in other areas, although there seem to be some slight signs of militarization.
Several Richmond County sheriff’s deputies have been seen walking around in olive-green uniforms with black vests. The Rockingham Police Department’s SWAT vehicle — though it resembles an ambulance and not an armored personnel carrier — is called “The War Wagon II.”
As for the uniforms, both Kelly and Clemmons said they were utility uniforms for K-9 officers and animal control officers and should not be construed as the departments being militarized.
“It’s more useful for what they do,” Kelly said.
Clemmons said officers’ jobs dictate their dress code. Most deputies wear traditional uniforms, while some may be dressed in uniforms that can withstand getting down in the dirt or trekking through the woods.
Both of Richmond County’s top cops said community policing is their preferred method.
“Community policing is very much an integral part of what we do,” Clemmons said. “People have a name and a face they can identify.”
Kelly said, weather permitting, his officers walk beats through neighborhoods.
“It’s when you don’t have that presence, you don’t have that trust,” Clemmons said.
“It’s about earning trust, creating a team,” he said, adding the community has its own role to play in public safety. “It’s not us against you, it’s us working together.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675.