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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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Balancing Act

BPD's reactive use of heavy military hardware is part of Masterson's broader policing strategy. Maintaining law and order, he has said, is about low-level, community policing, and that means dialogue and maintaining a general law enforcement presence in Boise. MRAPs, AR-15 assault rifles and over-the-uniform body armor aren't part of that dialogue, he said.

"I think one of the lessons that I learned long ago is that, yes, there should be police presence in the daytime, but not wearing hard gear. We should interact with the crowds. It appears that there is a strong faith-based community where you should be bringing advocates into the solution. Maybe the first line between the police and protesters is not an empty space. Maybe it's community leaders," Masterson said.

This isn't new turf for the BPD chief, who went before a Boise church congregation to voice his opposition to the so-called guns-on-campus bill when it was being considered in the 2014 Idaho legislative session. The bill was later signed into law despite Masterson's opposition. Nevertheless, it was a chance for the public to interact with the police in a nonconfrontational capacity. On the other end of the confrontation spectrum is military hardware, and Masterson told Boise Weekly that the materiel his department has received through the 1033 Program is part of not being naive about the possibility of disaster striking the Treasure Valley.

"Take a look at Boise and say it can't happen here. Take a look at the guy with 200 pounds of bomb-making material. To say it won't happen here? We do have a lot of people who hate government. You can't guarantee that nothing will happen," he said.

It's a balancing act that has high stakes for any community, and the public can get confused about the role police play when they talk about community policing on one hand, and their eagerness to acquire semi-automatic weapons and armored vehicles on the other.

"It's not uncommon for police officers to be quite aware of the paramilitary nature of police. Now, when it comes to talking publicly, public information officers are likely to play down the paramilitary features of their organizations because it can conflict with other messages they're trying to convey to the public," De Angelis said.

In an age when images of police militarization gone awry are a regular feature of front pages and television news, Masterson has so far elected to be sparing with the use of technology the department has acquired from the Department of Defense, but he's under no illusions about what kind of police department he's running.

"Look, we're paramilitary. I wear a uniform. I'm the most visible form of government ... and so are my 200 colleagues on the police force. What do you want as an option? Do you want us dressed in civilian clothes with name tags. Do you want police to drive unmarked squad cars and hide their guns? I think that's the very worst scenario we could have," he said. "We are paramilitary."