Obama rightfully questions supplying police with military-grade equipment in wake of Ferguson
Tear gas and terror in the heart of America
In a commendable move, President Obama has ordered a review of the government’s “Pentagon to police” program, which for the past decade has provided local police forces with military-grade equipment, including body armor, mine-resistant trucks and automatic rifles.
The issue came to light in the wake of racial unrest and dramatic clashes between protestors and heavily armed police in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Dramatic images of police riding military-style vehicles in full body armor sent shockwaves through the nation, and to the White House.
This equipment, which local law enforcement agencies received in the wake of 9/11, was distributed with drug wars and terrorism in mind. But now it is Americans who find themselves terrorized, as in Ferguson, citizens who are actively exercising their first amendment rights, find themselves staring down the barrels of assault rifles.
And it’s not just the military’s hand-me-downs that are filling the shelves of police departments’ armories; canisters of tear gas, banned from international use by the Geneva Convention, are also in stock in local police departments.
The use of tear gas has been prominently on display in photos from Ferguson. Though it is banned from international warfare, it somehow remains a law enforcement staple in the U.S. and in Ferguson, has been used against citizens as they try to express their opinions, and journalists as they attempt to document their actions.
It’s not just the safety of American citizens that is endangered by the militarization of local police, but their basic rights as well.
Police officers certainly have the right to protect themselves, but citizens also have the right to protest and should be able to do without fearing for their welfare—or their lives.
Even areas that are not experiencing unrest or violent crime of any nature have police departments that resemble military units rather than local law enforcement. Though it’s clearly worthwhile for police officers to be prepared to encounter violent situations, American towns are a far cry from the war zones for which mine-resistant trucks were designed.
Police departments exist to serve their communities, the majority of which are made up of innocent, law-abiding citizens who should feel safe and protected in the presence of law enforcement.
Seeing officers dressed in full SWAT gear and toting assault rifles doesn’t offer reassurance; it creates an environment of fear and suspicion—one that seems far more likely to encourage violence and distrust.
The issue is exacerbated by a lack of oversight and inconsistent, and even non-existent, training for officers receiving military-grade equipment. Under the original program, the distribution of equipment was not tracked and training was not required.
While the practice of supplying police with military supplies has its pros and cons, there is no ambiguity surrounding the necessity of training officers to correctly and safely use their new equipment.
This lack of training was on display in Ferguson, as police officers walked among protestors with their guns raised rather than pointed safely at the ground, demonstrating the officers’ ignorance of the military’s standards for muzzle awareness.
If assault rifles are going to become an everyday sight on streets in America, they should at least be in competent hands.