Editorial: A healthy re-evaluation of the militarization of local police

It took two weeks of civil unrest in Missouri, but the nation has started the hard and healthy discussion about the appropriateness of outfitting local law enforcement with military tools.

Images of Ferguson police officers clad in military gear and carrying assault rifles when confronting protesters angry after an officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in August prompted a national outcry about the militarization of police.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings examining the U.S. Department of Defense’s donation of surplus military equipment through Program 1033, as well as other federal grant programs that provide equipment to state and local police agencies.

The month before, President Barack Obama ordered a comprehensive review of the $500 billion in equipment Program 1033 has provided to local police over the last 20 years. Legislation curtailing the donation of excessive military equipment is in the works.

Closer to home, two California cities – Davis and San Jose – are looking at dumping armored military trucks worth $700,000 that their police departments recently received from the Department of Defense for free, minus the cost of delivery.

These actions together signal an important shift in the public’s tolerance of militarized local police department for the first time since 9/11.

On the eve of the 13th anniversary of that terrible tragedy, it’s a good time for a re-evaluation of whether we want Officer Friendly with a clipboard and pen or a GI Joe with camouflage and riot helmets patrolling our communities and neighborhoods.

The Davis City Council on Aug. 26 instructed its Police Department to come back four weeks later with a plan to get rid of its mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, known as an MRAP, just weeks after it took delivery of it.

The police had defended the new tool, saying it could be used to serve warrants on “high-risk” people or if the city had an “active shooter” situation. That’s what authorities call mass shooting incidents like Sandy Hook.

Residents were appalled by the idea of a war machine on the streets of peaceful Davis. MRAPs were developed for use in theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same week, San Jose police officials announced plans to give back their MRAP as well.

We hope this gives other cities and police departments the courage to examine their own use of donated military equipment, especially armored trucks. Certainly some police departments can justify the need for a bulletproof troop transport. Los Angeles, Chicago and New York police departments come to mind.

But probably not more than 600 cities.

Among the fact revealed in Tuesday’s Senate hearing was that, in the past three years Program 1033 has given 624 armored vehicles to local law enforcement agencies across the U.S., about a dozen of which went to police departments with fewer than 10 full-time sworn officers.

In other words, Mayberry PD.