COMMENTARY: The most frequently identified defense of the MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle) has been that, while the vehicle figures to be used very rarely, if it ends up being used once to save an officer’s life in a live-shooter or other high risk situation, it will have been worth it. While that is certainly a legitimate argument, it makes the assumption that the only downside to the MRAP is mitigated through infrequent, if not unlikely, use.
In the last two days, two pieces have emerged that articulate why this is more of a problem than defenders of the policy might acknowledge.
The Sacramento Bee editorial board today writes an editorial entitled, “A healthy re-evaluation of the militarization of local police.” The editorial comes with a photo of the city of Davis’s MRAP.
“It took two weeks of civil unrest in Missouri, but the nation has started the hard and healthy discussion about the appropriateness of outfitting local law enforcement with military tools,” the Bee writes. “Images of Ferguson police officers clad in military gear and carrying assault rifles when confronting protesters angry after an officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in August prompted a national outcry about the militarization of police.”
The Bee notes that the actions of Davis and San Jose, both of which are planning to get rid of their military trucks, together “signal an important shift in the public’s tolerance of militarized local police department for the first time since 9/11.”
They write, “On the eve of the 13th anniversary of that terrible tragedy, it’s a good time for a re-evaluation of whether we want Officer Friendly with a clipboard and pen or a GI Joe with camouflage and riot helmets patrolling our communities and neighborhoods.”
“The police had defended the new tool, saying it could be used to serve warrants on ‘high-risk’ people or if the city had an ‘active shooter’ situation. That’s what authorities call mass shooting incidents like Sandy Hook,” they continue. “Residents were appalled by the idea of a war machine on the streets of peaceful Davis. MRAPs were developed for use in theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Bee adds, “We hope this gives other cities and police departments the courage to examine their own use of donated military equipment, especially armored trucks.”
“Certainly some police departments can justify the need for a bulletproof troop transport. Los Angeles, Chicago and New York police departments come to mind,” they add. “But probably not more than 600 cities.”
On Tuesday we learned that over a period of three years, Program 1033 has given 624 armored vehicles to local law enforcement agencies across the U.S., including about 12 communities with less than 10 full-time sworn officers.
“In other words,” the Bee writes, “Mayberry PD.”
The Bee never specifically articulates their objection but it appears to come down to what Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis referred to as “symbolism.” Mayor Pro Tem Davis said that “symbol matters,” and “we are a species that uses symbol” and “this symbolizes the most destructive force on the planet which is the US Military. I think we have to acknowledge that.”
He told the police chief, “I appreciate the trust that you’ve built in this community… this will hurt it.”
A very different take emerges from Phil Locke of the Ohio Innocence Project and Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, on the website, “The Wrongful Convictions Blog.”
Mr. Locke writes, “According to the latest data from the National Registry of Exonerations, 46% of wrongful convictions have ‘official (including police) misconduct’ as a contributing cause.”
He notes that the state bestows “official” “police powers” to the police and this makes “them very powerful.” He writes that “most police misconduct is manifested in the form of abuse of power, rather than simple error. In recent years, we have, increasingly, given the police not just ‘police power’ but ‘military power.’”
Mr. Locke references the Lord Acton quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Mr. Locke writes, “Giving military power to police brings them that much closer to absolute power, and that power becomes easier and easier to misuse. This is compounded by the fact that the police have a demonstrated history of not being good at ‘policing’ themselves, and official police oversight is perfunctory.”
He continues, “Police departments will claim to have ‘internal affairs’ divisions. I submit this is like having the fox watch the henhouse, and they apparently don’t work, because police misconduct persists, and ‘official misconduct’ continues to contribute to 46% of wrongful convictions.”
Davis has, of course and as we note time and time again, gone through this battle before. In 2006, we had this debate and it was bloody and polarizing, and we emerged from it with a form of police oversight and better police administrative management that have greatly reduced the number of citizen complaints over the years.
But we need to be cautious rather complacent. A number of citizens who spoke two weeks ago noted that, while the current police administration is good, can we be assured that this continues into the future? Moreover, as we saw at UC Davis and indeed in 2006, sometimes the policies of the civilian leaders are the problem, not just the police.
It was only in July we had a councilmember appear to question the need for the police auditor position and, while they eventually supported the renewal of the contract, the discussion surrounding the police is enough to remind us that although we have a good system in place today to protect against abuses, it is neither permanent nor infallible.
Mr. Locke continues, “Everyone has recoiled at what has recently transpired in Ferguson, MO. A recent NY Times article relates events in Ferguson to the militarization of police: here.”
He writes, “This all started in 1990 with Section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress. In 1996 Section 1208 was replaced with the Section 1033 DOD program, which is still in place today. And with the 1033 program in place, the wind down of the Iraq war opened the floodgates of military equipment available to police departments. See the Newsweek article How America’s Police Became an Army: The 1033 Program. See also the NY Times article War Gear Flows to Police Departments. While this was certainly well intentioned, the legislators failed to grasp the psychological impact this would have on the people who would actually be using the equipment.”
Mr. Locke argues that, while military equipment and fire power is scary, “all that stuff is really just an ‘enabler.’” He argues, “What’s really scary is what’s going on in the brains of the cops. They seem to be increasingly adopting a ‘battlefield’ mindset – vanquish the enemy – and giving them MRAP’s and M-16’s substantially reinforces that state of mind. Plus, if the police have all this stuff, of course they’re going to want to use it.”
That may seem over-the-top, and certainly in our community setting it might be. But there was the police officer in Ferguson caught on video threatening to shoot journalists, and then, of course, there was the local pepper spray. (This is an example that comes up because it is local, even though the police agencies were different).
Mr. Locke argues, “We’ve seen the evolution of excessive use of SWAT teams. SWAT teams have been around since the 1960’s, but SWAT teams are now commonly used to perform such routine functions as serving warrants and making simple arrests.”
He notes a recent debate between Radley Balko, Washington Post investigative reporter and author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” and Maricopa County (AZ) Attorney Bill Montgomery about the militarization of our domestic police.
During this debate, Mr. Montgomery stated, “These ‘elite’ officers have to stay sharp and on alert. They have to practice.” Practice by having a SWAT team storm a young mother’s home at 3:00 AM to serve a warrant and make an arrest? Might I suggest this is “over the top?”
Again, I do not believe that right now in 2014 there is a danger of such misuse from our local Davis police, but we cannot ignore the trend around the country, which is why you are seeing the pushback as articulated by the Sacramento Bee. Davis was just the first, but clearly will not be the last, to return their military vehicles.
—David M. Greenwald reporting