Ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri have raised the issue of the militarization of the police. The Department of Defense distributes surplus military equipment to U.S. police departments. In 2013, nearly half a billion dollars of equipment was distributed, ranging from pistols and rifles to armored personnel carriers used in Iraq and Afghanistan. This trend is well outlined in Radley Balko’s recent book, Rise of the Warrior Cop. While on the surface this is a disturbing trend, there are other aspects to police militarization that are worth discussing.
U.S. military actions on foreign soil involve abundant high tech equipment. Unlike wars of previous generations, modern warfare brings modern equipment to the battlefield. Once the war is over, much of this equipment is left behind. Better to bring it home than leave it on foreign soil where new enemy forces can commandeer the equipment. ISIS now has tanks, Humvees, and helicopters seized in Iraq that can and will be used against any U.S. efforts in the region. And now we are using taxpayer dollars to bomb and destroy military equipment paid for by taxpayer dollars.
Concern over police militarization is a bipartisan issue with support from both sides of the political spectrum. From Investors Business Daily on the right to the Huffington Post on the left, legitimate concerns are being raised over proliferating SWAT teams and heavy-handed police tactics. SWAT teams and similar paramilitary units are reasonable and necessary in large cities. But what about for government agencies that have nothing to do with law enforcement or the military? Why do the Department of Education, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service need SWAT teams?
One would think there would be similar concern over other areas of government overreach and abuse of power. Aside from the issue of police militarization, it seems only the Tea Party and other conservatives are pushing back against other government excesses such as the IRS, being used to target and harass political opponents. Or similar activities at the Department of Justice. Immigration laws are being ignored by the administration and Obamacare legislation is being added, deleted, or altered on a whimsical basis. And let’s not forget NSA surveillance activities. Yet there is a deafening silence from the media over the IRS scandal; it seems they are only outraged by issues that affect them personally or fit with their political worldview. Reporters being arrested in Ferguson by a “militarized police force” is terrible and the media are having conniptions over the targeting of one of their own, but using the most feared of government agencies to intimidate private citizens, specifically conservatives, is ho hum? Selective outrage.
There are times when a militarized police force may be necessary. Protests can quickly turn into full-fledged riots, with destruction of lives and property. One only needs to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, or the current melee in Ferguson. What chance would a group of police armed with nightsticks and pistols have against an unruly mob with far more sophisticated weaponry?
When James Holmes opened fire in a Colorado movie theater, he was armed with an M-16 semi-automatic rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol. Adam Lanza used a semiautomatic rifle to shoot students and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school. Newtown Connecticut is a town of less than 28,000, 45 miles from the next largest city of Hartford. Aurora Colorado has a SWAT team, Newtown does not. When fretting about the militarization of the police, don’t forget that bad things, whether riots or school shootings, can happen quickly and may be beyond the capabilities of the local pistol toting police force. Militarized police units may be the only rapid response able to prevent mass causalities and property damage, and they are of little use if they are hours away in the big city.
The militarization of domestic law enforcement and government agencies is certainly a cause for concern. Yet times and society have changed to the point that such paramilitary units are at times necessary. Striking a reasonable balance between under and overreach is the challenge, relying on leadership that understands and respects both American culture and law. And there lies the problem, having trust that our leaders understand these concepts and are willing to do the right thing rather than turn any police action into a racial and political issue.
Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based physician, is an advocate of smaller, more efficient government. Twitter @retinaldoctor.