Unilateral Disarmament and the Police
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a lengthy article on how President Obama and liberals in Congress are planning to "review" the policy of providing local police with surplus military equipment. This is supposedly because politicians have been "Jolted by images of protesters clashing with heavily armed police officers in Missouri." To prove the point, a photo ran with the story online, but it was not the least bit persuasive.
The police officers shown were wearing helmets and body armor. There is nothing new, unusual, or menacing about this. Do the politicians and pundits want to send officers into the field without such protection? Aren't liberals the ones always warning about the threat to public safety from all the guns held in private hands? The general estimate of national gun ownership from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is 300 million guns. Lawmen have to assume that anytime they deploy they risk facing people who are armed. And if the police are facing criminal gangs or self-styled revolutionaries, they may well be facing adversaries with weapons more powerful than what they are carrying. And a mob with rocks, clubs, and Molotov cocktails is not to be dismissed as harmless. It was a teenager with a rock who brought down Goliath.
In the NYT photo, the cops only have shotguns, a standard weapon from time immemorial. A friend of mine was given a shotgun by her brother when she joined the Cook County Sheriff's Police decades ago. It was not the only gun she carried. Patrolling the perimeter of Chicago, alone in a squad car (often at night), put her life in danger with every stop or incident she investigated. She would have felt better if her cruiser had been "up-armored."
There has been news footage of police in Ferguson armed with assault guns and sniper rifles which may have been provided by the Federal government or which could have been purchased by the police. Such weapons are readily available, and not just to law enforcement. On August 10, this firepower was apparently aimed at "peaceful" demonstrators, and this seemed an overreaction. Yet, this was the morning after a night of riots, looting, and arson which followed the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. The police had no idea what the thousands of angry protesters who gathered that morning had in mind. Placards declaring "No Justice, No Peace" voiced a threat. If the lynch mob did not get its way, more violence would ensue.
The NYT's piece traced the "militarization" of police to the enlisting of local authorities into the post-9/11 counterterrorism effort. The departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense all participated with funds and equipment. But this does not take the story back far enough. The program actually started in the 1990s in response to the widening threat from street gangs whose strength and firepower had created "no go" areas in major urban centers. According to the 2011 FBI Gang Threat Assessment Report there are 33,000 gangs with 1.4 million members in the U.S. So the question should be, when did the criminals "militarize?"
Drugs have been at the center of gang warfare. It is estimated that 17,000 people die each year from illicit drug use. The number one cause of death among black males aged 15-34 is murder. Yet, the problem is not one-dimensional. Stealing, gunrunning, and the protection racket still thrive. According to the FBI threat report, "Gangs are increasingly engaging in non-traditional gang-related crime, such as alien smuggling, human trafficking, and prostitution. Gangs are also engaging in white-collar crime such as counterfeiting, identity theft, and mortgage fraud." So the tasks facing those who voluntarily put on the uniform and place themselves on that "thin blue line" between law and disorder are immense and risky.
On CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, host Candy Crowley asked police chiefs from around the country "What do you all think of these, all this equipment that seems so militaristic?" Chief James Craig of the Detroit Police Department (who is black) answered as follows: "We have conducted large scale operations. I'm talking 200 to 300 police officers converging in a specific neighborhood, in some instances deploying our armored vehicle, our squad officers going to specific locations. And again the issue is specific, not just randomly driving an armored vehicle through the streets of Detroit, the people applaud because they know we are there to keep them safe and keeping our officers safe."
Thomas Manger, Chief of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Police Dept. added, "We have had armored vehicles for over 20 years. And one of the reasons that the public has never complained about it or mentioned it is because they are used appropriately. They are used in hostage barricade situations and to rescue hostages, to get officers into a hot zone to recover a victim. They are used in bomb cases. They are used with active shooters. Those are appropriate uses for these vehicles. They get people safely to an area where it is not safe to be."
On at least one occasion during the Ferguson riots, the police sent two armored vehicles to rescue an injured man from a dangerous situation.
Early in the CNN interview, the chiefs expressed concern over a "backlash" against police across the country; a backlash they were too diplomatic to blame on a liberal media which has been hyping the "militarized police" screed to divert attention from the real source of turmoil and violence in Ferguson. It is the mobs who have looted and burned stores and have posed such a danger that the schools have been closed for two weeks to keep children out of harms way. Rather than "overreact" the police have been operating under such restrictive rules of engagement that they have not been able to perform their duties. Property owners have had to take up arms to protect themselves. Indeed, what is driving the law-abiding public to buy guns all across the country is self-defense in the absence of enough police to hold the line in a society that is disintegrating.
The real lesson of the Ferguson riots is that the need to "support your local police" is more vital than ever. One thing the police and the military have in common is that to adopt a policy of unilateral disarmament to appease opponents is to court disaster.