Military-grade gear shouldn’t be standard for local law enforcement
A Cedar Village riot doesn’t warrant a military tank.
But the aftermath of the fatal shooting by a police officer of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., showed that law enforcement agencies are increasingly heavy-handed with their military-style equipment.
In Ferguson, citizens gathered for a candlelight vigil following the Aug. 9 shooting. The vigil began peacefully, but looting and violence soon ensued and spun the city into a scene of chaos for weeks.
The country watched local and state law enforcement agencies attempt to control the situation. The Ferguson seen through photographs, tweets and live streams started to resemble an occupied territory more than a free city.
Tear gas, rubber bullets and Humvees made their way onto the streets in a fight to contain demonstrators.
In the midst of the tension, President Barack Obama ordered an investigation of the federal programs that provide local agencies across the country with surplus military defense gear.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama said in a press conference.
In our own backyards, we’ve seen police respond with force to raucous public gatherings.
When MSU beat Ohio State to claim the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, proud members of Spartan Nation reveled. Most notably around Cedar Village, they stormed out of apartments and gathered in the street to celebrate. They lit fires and fed the flames with couches and trees. It was estimated that about 2,000 people were in the crowd near River and Cedar Streets.
MSU and East Lansing police, plus other authorities, including Michigan State Police riot officers, responded to the scene. At least 15 arrests were made.
Those officers didn’t fire off tear gas or rubber bullets, but the issue is whether they should be permitted to.
There are many examples of appropriate use of force and equipment. In Ferguson, however, law enforcement officials are overstepping their bounds by pulling out heavy equipment against communities.
Military-style equipment from the Department of Defense was intended to offer both the public and police security against armed gangs and serious potential threats such as terrorism, according to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
That purpose should be apparent in police practice.
We need strong, national regulations governing the use of heavy equipment and strict consequences for agencies that meet citizens with tactical gear. For civilian protests or unrest, such as the civil disturbance at MSU last December, some equipment can be too drastic a response.
An officer’s duty is to protect, not fight. And if streets and roads become combat zones, no one is really safe.