Editorial: Does city need a BearCat? Think carefully, please
New Hampshire is regularly named among the safest states in the nation. Its capital, Concord, has all the ills of any city in America but, for the most part, in miniature. It, too, has been cited as a safe place to live. So even if it comes as a gift from federal taxpayers, does the city need a $260,000 military-style BearCat armored personnel carrier? The city council should think carefully before accepting this gift because psychologically the BearCat could prove to be a Trojan horse.
Concord police Chief John Duval is right when he says that in some situations the vehicle, whose armor can stop a .50-caliber battle round, could save police officers’ lives. It would allow officers to approach close enough to an armed person for a negotiator to attempt to defuse the situation and avoid violence. All of this is to the good, but there is a downside to the increasing militarization of America’s police forces. One is the risk that increasing the fighting capacity of police officers in the name of homeland security or the failed war on drugs will make officers think more like soldiers and less like public servants. It could increase the us-versus-them mentality that’s inevitable when one group’s job is to enforce laws and the other’s is to avoid breaking them.
Last week in The Wall Street Journal, Radley Balko, author of The Rise of the Warrior Cop, warned of the dangers inherent in militarizing domestic law enforcement. Among them is the change in culture, away from community policing and toward a tendency to see lawbreakers and potential lawbreakers as the enemy.
Police officers in an armored vehicle is the opposite of community policing – think the cop on the beat and police on bicycles. While we can’t imagine that Concord’s police would use the BearCat in other than extraordinary situations, the sight of it rolling down the street won’t make citizens feel safer. It will make them feel like residents in an occupied country.
Such perceptions are important. They affect a community’s sense of place. And the police presence in Concord, thanks to the city’s focus on enforcing traffic laws more stringently, is already considerable. A police officer on foot or on a bike makes residents feel safe. Police cars parked to ambush traffic violators make people glance nervously at the speedometer and cross their fingers. Both are necessary, but the feel of a city can be determined by which one is emphasized.
The makers of armored vehicles and other gear originally designed for war have a stake in the increased militarization of America’s domestic police force. Members of Congress, who dare not risk being thought soft on crime, derelict in matters of homeland security or insensitive to the safety of members of law enforcement, approve billions of dollars in grants to communities for gear like the BearCat.
In some places, the power and strength of the armored vehicles and other military-grade equipment has been blamed for causing the police to overreact. In others the equipment has saved lives. But in no place, we believe, do citizens feel safer because their local police force has equipment meant for war and personnel trained to use it. If the Concord City Council decides to equip the police force with a BearCat, it should closely monitor its use and its effect on the attitude of law enforcement.