Editorials

A good first step toward demilitarizing police

In this 2013 still frame from a video, LAPD officers fire blank rounds from a helicopter in a drill simulating a terrorist attack. After years of sending military equipment to civilian police departments, Washington has asked for some of it back.
In this 2013 still frame from a video, LAPD officers fire blank rounds from a helicopter in a drill simulating a terrorist attack. After years of sending military equipment to civilian police departments, Washington has asked for some of it back. Los Angeles Police Department

Back in 2014, around the time police in Ferguson, Mo., were making headlines for the shooting of teen Michael Brown, the Davis Police Department got its hands on a slightly used, $689,000 armored vehicle. It was free from the federal government.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t go over so well with residents. They didn’t want a mine-resistant, ambush-protected tank, one just smaller than those used by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, roaming their city’s streets. The Davis City Council wisely sent the vehicle back.

Not all cities have been as level-headed, however. So, heeding concerns about the militarization of civilian law enforcement agencies, the Obama administration has decided to recall some of the more than $5.1 billion in surplus military equipment that the federal government has handed out since 1997.

Among the items it wants back: grenade launchers, armored vehicles that run on tracks, .50-caliber machine guns and other large-caliber weapons. Oh, and bayonets.

Law enforcement agencies have until April 1 to return them. So far, most agencies have been cooperative, nationally and in California, the recipient of more than $90 million worth of federal equipment since 2006. But some have objected, arguing that policing has become so dangerous and their budgets so small that officers, in fact, do need free, ferocious-looking weapons to be effective.

$5.1 billion in military equipment has been handed out since 1997.

“This isn’t Mayberry, where a guy goes and locks himself in jail because he got drunk,” Michael J. Bouchard, a rural sheriff near Detroit told The New York Times. “There are guys who walk up to you and fire off 13 rounds in a couple of seconds.”

But most places aren’t Detroit-adjacent. Take the Yolo County seat, Woodland, which snagged the armored vehicle that Davis returned to use in hostage situations and to protect officers.

While it is true that enforcing the law is dangerous, particularly with the growing threat of mass shootings, equipping civilian law enforcement with weapons of war isn’t the answer to quelling the kind of violence that afflicts most cities and towns.

Indeed, one only has to look at the aftermath of Brown’s shooting in Ferguson – a St. Louis suburb turned into a tear-gas-soaked war zone – and it’s clear that the blatant threat of violence often only begets more violence.

Woodland police say they’re keeping their armored vehicle because they might need it for joint SWAT operations. Also the federal government hasn’t asked for it back because it runs on wheels, not tracks.

We’re still not convinced that a place best known for its surrounding farms needs an MRAP. But we’re happy to see less warlike equipment on U.S. cities’ streets.

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