Editorial: Militarization of police must be monitored
For more than a week, unrest and outrage over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager has gripped Ferguson, Mo. The issues raised by this confluence of race and police power are complex and numerous. But one particular issue can and should be addressed, particularly in New Hampshire. And that’s the growing militarization of local police forces.
Our state’s leaders must push for an accounting: What police departments have military hardware and for what purpose?
In the first few days after Michael Brown’s killing on Aug. 9, the most vivid images were those of police officers dressed like combat troops. They pointed high-powered weapons at protesters. They rode in armored personnel vehicles and helicopters. They used tear gas and rubber bullets.
This grossly disproportionate response was counterproductive. Rather than calm the streets of the St. Louis suburb, the police response instead brought out more protesters. Eventually, the local police were put under the command of the state highway patrol. Attorney General Eric Holder traveled there last week to promise a full federal investigation.
What the Ferguson police didn’t realize was that the deployment of such military grade equipment – easy for local departments to access as two major U.S. wars wind down – would serve as a perfect example of the blatant injustice claimed by residents. While the racial inequities that roil Ferguson are largely absent in a state like New Hampshire, which is more than 94 percent white, we can’t ignore the problems caused by arming the police like armies.
The federal government bears much of the blame. Its 1033 program, according to Politifact.com, “allows local law enforcement agencies to acquire surplus military equipment, at nearly no cost (they have to pay for transporting the equipment). . . . More than 8,000 agencies participate in the 1033 program, which has given out more than $5 billion in property since it started.”
On a national level, this program must be re-examined. Locally, we need to know what police departments have been requesting equipment and how they are planning to use it.
In limited cases, such as the BearCat armored vehicle procured by the Concord police and shared with other area law enforcement agencies, the hardware is defensible. The police can face significant, unknown dangers and may require this level of protection. In most other situations, though, the war materiel seen in the streets of Ferguson would seem out of place in New Hampshire.
That’s why Gov. Maggie Hassan should take the lead in asking police departments throughout the state to publicly report what kinds of military hardware they’ve obtained from the U.S. armed forces. They should also state what threats the equipment is supposed to address.(And no, Keene Police Department, that does not include protecting your Pumpkin Festival from terrorist attack.)
Legislative action may be necessary if departments refuse to share this information, but we trust that most law enforcement officials want to build trust with the public. As the data becomes available, the state could collect it in an easy-to-access, easy-to-understand format.
At that point, the residents of New Hampshire should have the opportunity to openly debate whether the forces sworn to protect us should be using such tools. In a state where individual liberty is prized so highly, the discussion should be a spirited one.