Even before the Ferguson incident, the issue of the militarization of American policing had come to the forefront. On June 24, the ACLU released its report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” In it, they conclude, “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.”
The Vanguard learned last week that the city of Davis’ police department has acquired a large military-style vehicle.
Davis Police Chief Landy Black explained in a full statement, “Two weeks ago, through that 1033 Program, we received—for free—a low mileage, well maintained, armored vehicle that will enable us to be better prepared for and capable of handling a school/university/mall-based/etc. mass-shooting (‘active-shooter’) incident occurring in Davis or at UCD.”
He added, “The vehicle, which is valued at $689,000, is known by its military acronym, “MRAP” (Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected). It is one of the smaller versions of armored vehicle the military had been employing in Afghanistan.”
The leadership in Davis was caught off guard by this development. Councilmember Lucas Frerichs told the Vanguard late on Tuesday, “I was extremely surprised to learn of, (after it’s delivery), this recent acquisition of an armored vehicle, by the Davis Police Department.”
Mayor Dan Wolk added, “I can’t imagine why Davis needs a tank. It’s in a city garage and I hope it stays there.”
Councilmember Brett Lee was more circumspect, noting on the one hand, “We live in a free society where the presumption is innocent until proven guilty, we have the right to assembly, the freedom of the press and the right to free speech. I am deeply troubled when these basic rights are ignored.”
However, concluding, “Sadly we live in a nation where sometimes we must be prepared for the extreme circumstance; so yes, I am comfortable accepting a free donation of the armored vehicle with the clear understanding that the police will only use it under very narrow circumstances.”
Chief Landy Black explained that in 2009, the Davis City Council issued Resolution 09-033 which renewed the authorization for the Davis Police Department “to acquire surplus federal/military equipment suitable for use in conventional law enforcement activities through the 1033 Program of the Defense Logistics Agency, Law Enforcement Support Office (DLA/LESO).”
“The 1033 Program was established to convert/re-purpose surplus federal/military equipment to local law enforcement use. The program is administered here in California by the Office of Emergency Services (OES).”
In his explanation, he noted, “We will hopefully never benefit from its mine resistance capabilities, but its ambush (ballistic) protection makes it the perfect platform to perform rescues of victims and potential victims during such active-shooter incidents, and to more safely deliver officers into any active-shooter incidents, barricaded hostage crises, and/or other or environments involving armed offenders.”
According to Chief Black, there is currently no law enforcement specific vehicle mass-marketed that has the same ballistic properties.
He believes, “Without this armored rescue vehicle, the Davis Police Department is not able to respond into an active-live fire situation to either perform extraction, rescue, or threat elimination without extreme risk to the officers and any involved persons.”
At the same time, there are increasing concerns about the militarization of the police.
The ACLU’s report notes, “Using these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for communities. Instead, the use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.”
Radley Balko, who was one of the first to sound the alarm on the militarization of police with his 2013 book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” recently wrote in the Washington Post, “Where violent, volatile SWAT tactics were once used only in limited situations where someone was in the process of or about to commit a violent crime — where the police were using violence only to defuse an already violent situation — SWAT teams today are overwhelmingly used to investigate people who are still only suspected of committing nonviolent consensual crimes. And because these raids often involve forced entry into homes, often at night, they’re actually creating violence and confrontation where there was none before.”
Missouri’s Governor Jay Nixon, a former prosecutor and attorney general, criticized the “over-militarization” of the police response to protests. “There are times when force is necessary, but we really felt that push at that time was a little aggressive, obviously, and those images were not what we were trying to get to,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“And in those situations where folks are rolling up heavily armored and they’re pointing guns at folks, that’s impossible to have a dialogue,” Governor Nixon said.
At the same time, Davis does not face the crisis that exists in Ferguson, Missouri. However, incidents arise and UC Davis in particular was heavily criticized for their handling of student protests in November 2011 that led to the pepper spray incident.
These concerns do not appear to be lost on Chief Landy Black.
He told the Vanguard, “We are sensitive to the ‘militarization of the police’ concern. We do not want to minimize that sentiment and will look for ways to reduce public anxiety, including through the community trust that the Davis Police Department works so hard to earn and keep.”
At the same time, he argued, “This is not militarization.”
He explained, “I wish police generally, and Davis Police specifically, weren’t forced to deal with the sort of circumstances that make this sort of tool a necessity. But like it or not, the types of incidents that we need to be prepared for, the types of incidents that put citizens at dire risk, especially as recent history has demonstrated, too often also create victims from students and children.”
He noted, “These tragedies are taking place in sleepy little towns and low-key universities around the U.S. Places not unlike Davis and UC Davis (e.g. Sandy Hook and Virginia State). Preparedness, akin to the approach we as community want to take with regard to the oil trains, cannot be under-valued just because this is peaceful Davis.”
The chief added, “In fact, as a relative comparison, the likelihood of an active shooter incident occurring in one of our public schools or at UCD is probably ten times more likely to occur than an oil train derailment that results in explosion or fire.
“By my rough count, there have been thirteen or more active-shooter incidents, causing 13 deaths and 25 people suffering gunshot wounds at schools/colleges in the U.S. so far in 2014, while only one rail car derailment that resulted in fire.”
The chief continued, “Acknowledging that the likelihood of an active shooter incident is remote, but certainly not impossible, we—the community and its public safety organizations—need to be as prepared as we can be to respond quickly and with the right tools to rescue people—very likely children—and protect by-standers and officers during such a possible active-shooter incident.”
As mentioned earlier, “There is currently no law enforcement specific vehicle mass-marketed that has the same ballistic properties. Without this armored rescue vehicle, the Davis Police Department is not able to respond into an active-live fire situation to either perform extraction, rescue, or threat elimination without extreme risk to the officers and any involved persons.”
Chief Landy Black added, “As with all new equipment, procedures, and strategies adopted by the Department, operating guidelines and procedures will be developed to ensure proper and well-purposed uses, consistent with City, Department, and community philosophy.”
The council and the public’s response remains to be seen.
From Councilmember Frerichs’ perspective, “Additional details regarding the process and timeline of its acquisition are still forthcoming, and I have raised a number of questions with the Police Chief and the City Manager as to the appropriateness and need for such a tool. I anticipate knowing more in depth information in the coming days, and look forward to discussing the matter further, at that time.”
For Councilmember Brett Lee, the key is matching the approach and equipment to the situation. “We often read the inappropriate use of Tasers on individuals who are peaceably protesting. That is unacceptable.”
“When we peaceably assemble to protest the aerial spraying of pesticides or tuition increases, the use of riot gear, armored vehicles, etc. is not acceptable in my opinion,” he said. “If on the other hand if we have an armed individual or individuals that are actively threatening our safety, by all means let’s make use of the appropriate tools and protective equipment in a responsible manner.”
“I think we as a community want the police to use the tactics and equipment appropriate to the situation,” Councilmember Lee stated. “While the image of a military armored vehicle can understandably cause us unease, it is my understanding that it will only be used under very exceptional circumstances.”
And the concern that reports from the ACLU and others lay out is mission creep, where the law enforcement entities make use of the tools they have in ways that they never envisioned. That will be a task that the council and community will have to weigh in on through in the coming weeks.
—David M. Greenwald reporting