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Police Departments Are Grabbing Up Free Military Hardware

Here's how (and why) they're using it

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Flashpoint

BPD's REVA, which was parked in the City Hall West parking lot near the MRAP on Aug. 26, looked almost modest by comparison. The SWAT truck has less armor than its larger counterpart and gets much better gas mileage, but it's still intimidating with its all-black paint job. According to BPD Deputy Chief Scott Mulcahy, the intimidation factor of the MRAP and SWAT truck are not accidents.

"The visual presence of this vehicle is a level of force," he said. "You see this rolling down your street and you're going to wonder what's up."

For police, the show of force is another tool in the law enforcement toolbox. For the public, it is a symbol, and depending on how police interact with the public they serve, the show of force can be a symbol of law and order, or of paramilitary excess. Concern over police militarization is often code for concern about the role police play in communities.

"It can ... speak to underlying tensions that have relatively little to do with military technology itself," said Dr. Joseph De Angelis, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Idaho, whose area of research is public perceptions of police.

When the media or the public talk about the dangers of police militarization, De Angelis said, that discussion is sidestepping deeper rifts between the public and police--often involving race or class. The Missouri attorney general reported in 2013 that Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African Americans, who make up two-thirds of Ferguson residents, as they were to arrest whites. The Washington Post reports that despite that community's racial gap, three of Ferguson's 53 police officers are black. Its mayor, police chief and most of the members of its city council are white.

"The focus on militarization glosses over some of the deeper issues that local jurisdictions face. To focus on the expansion of MRAPs and the distribution of assault rifles to small communities is potentially concerning, but if the goal is to get at what's creating conflict between local communities and police departments, it's usually related to other kinds of underlying tensions," De Angelis said.

Questions of whether the police abuse their power or are inappropriately armed to safeguard communities are as old as the idea of municipal law enforcement. But many of those questions allude to an age-old trade-off between keeping the public safe from police abuse and concern for the safety of police officers whose jobs require them to resolve potentially life-threatening situations. According to De Angelis, using technology to confront increasingly well-armed suspects is a common way to improve on-the-job police safety, but it's up to police to best represent themselves in their service areas.

"It's clear that forms of weaponry that exist on the streets have been changing over the last 20 years. There's no doubt that citizens have much more sophisticated forms of firearms. The police claim that conditions on the street are more dangerous, and it's a claim that we have to take reasonably seriously. But in the end it comes down to how they use that technology," he said.

Misuse of repurposed military equipment comes in a variety of forms. There's indiscriminate use of military materiel: In Ferguson, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators. Earlier this year, an officer tossed a flashbang grenade into the crib of an Atlanta-area toddler, who suffered severe burns. But there's also "mission creep," in which military-style units like SWAT teams are deployed to non-high-risk situations.

While some police departments write policies giving broad authority to roll out military equipment in a variety of situations, others are more strict, tightly controlling when and how tactical units and tech are used. And there's a correlation between how flexible those policies are and how police departments are likely to be perceived by the public.

"When you don't have the parameters outlined, then you're likely to have that technology used in unanticipated and less effective ways. Then you certainly have a chance that police can respond to a critical incident in a less-than-optimal way," De Angelis said.

The parameters outlined by the BPD are "headed in the right direction," said ACLU-Idaho Interim Executive Director Leo Morales, but more is needed to ensure that someone is watching the watchmen.

"Is there an opportunity for the community to provide input? Who provides oversight? Perhaps it could be better," he said.

The ACLU has been concerned with police militarization since long before events in Ferguson splashed images of MRAPs and grenade launchers into the news cycle. In June, it released War Comes Home, an examination of military hardware from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan making their way into the hands of police departments. Specifically, the report looked at the targets of SWAT raids and the effect these trends have on trust in the people who are supposed to be protecting the public's safety. It concluded that nationwide, between 2011 and 2012, 62 percent of SWAT deployments were drug searches. Meanwhile, 500 law enforcement agencies have received MRAPs.

Increasingly, police are being trained in military-style tactics instead of community policing, and so-called no-knock raids are becoming more common. Police agencies say tactics and weaponry are necessary to protect officers in the line of duty, but for Morales, militarized police forces are being deployed in situations where SWAT-style tactics are unnecessary.

"To use these kinds of weapons requires different training. The military's trained for a different purpose. We potentially undercut the training of local police and building trust in communities," he said.

According to Morales, there are lessons to be learned from high-profile instances in which police militarization goes wrong--lessons about social challenges that come to the fore when police clash with the public in a changing America.

Without oversight of police militarization, Morales said, any community could be the next Ferguson.

"The heavy militarization of law enforcement is not going to work in any community. There's also an attempt by law enforcement to suppress the media there," Morales said.