Sunday Commentary: The Slippery Slope of Police Militarization and Mission Creep

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On Friday afternoon the Vanguard was able to sit down with Davis Police Chief Landy Black, along with Assistant Chief Darren Pytel. The Vanguard expresses its appreciation to the Davis Police for the amount of information and detail they were willing to elaborate on what is still an ongoing investigation.

It started with three questions: whether the individuals were alive at any point once the police arrived, why the delay in calling in the MRAP, and why two MRAPs.

We now understand pretty clearly that, while there is no official time of death, the shots were fired prior to the arrival of the police, the police heard no gunshots while they were there, and the coroner’s office indicated that death occurred immediately.

Second, the police based their initial call for the MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) on the belief that Mr. Hein may have had access to an automatic rifle that could penetrate their existing equipment. And third, the police brought in two MRAPs from the tactical position of needing cover for two separate parts of the operation.

As it turns out, the police did not need either MRAP for this incident, as Mr. Hein not only was deceased by the time police arrived but also he didn’t have the weapon they feared he might have.

For this incident and future incidents, the need for armor turns on the likelihood of an active shooter situation and the probability that next time the individual will have the high-powered weapon that the police feared was in play in this incident.

The community and city council had already weighed in on the desirability for the Davis police to possess a military-grade vehicle. The future question that the council will have to answer at some point is whether it is all right for the Davis Police to bring an MRAP in from outside the city and whether it wants to expend the resources on an alternative.

Throughout this renewed discussion there has been a sentiment from many along the lines of: how dare we second-guess the police? While it is true we lack the direct training and experience of the police, the U.S. has a long history of civilians ‒ whether they be elected officials or the voters ‒ weighing in on policy matters affecting the police and providing guidelines and boundaries.

In this column, I wish to address three issues here – the need for two MRAPs, police policy on surround and call out versus dynamic entry, and finally the alternatives to the MRAP.

From the start, the concern about the MRAP was a concern about the militarization of the police. In recent days we have discussed concerns about police heavy-handed tactics in situations where such tactics were unnecessary.

When the idea of mission creep came up during council discussions last fall, Assistant Chief Darren Pytel, while acknowledging the potential for mission creep, downplayed it, arguing that, if anything, such discussion will make mission creep less likely and the police are more likely to err on the side of too little rather than excessive force.

In Radley Balko’s book on the rise of militarization in American police, he noted that Don Santarelli, who at the time headed up a federal agency that doled out grants and gear to police agencies, became concerned about requests by local police agencies wanting gear and military training to start their own tactical teams.

The book quotes him: “I was always hesitant about that. There were certain supervised, tightly controlled circumstances where that kind of force was appropriate. But law enforcement has never been good at self-discipline. Once they had that sort of capability, it would be difficult to limit it to those circumstances.”

From the start, this was our concern with bringing in the MRAP. The fear was that, while there may well be situations that call for the armored vehicle, having the equipment at easy disposal will convince the agency to use it with increasing frequency as a precaution.

Indeed, in this situation, they decided they needed two MRAPs. When asked, Darren Pytel had what on the surface at least seems to be a valid explanation of why they needed two. There are the specifics of these circumstances that meant that they had very little to no cover on the street. They put their team designed for rapid entry in one vehicle and the operator of the robot in the other vehicle.

As one person said, so now we not only need an MRAP, we need two MRAPs. Mission creep begins with a series of easily-defensible steps that no one in the end is able to stop from completely changing the original justification.

The second part of this story is the move away from dynamic entries toward a more time-intensive strategy of surround and call out. Darren Pytel spent a lot of time on Friday explaining why and how the Davis Police have changed their tactics.

He argued that the courts are asking police to slow things down. When things go to lawsuits, experts are called in and they cite best practices.

He stressed that this is a policy he very much agrees with, even though many departments continue to use dynamic entries ‒ with problematic results at times. He said there has been a change in thinking, away from rushing in to quickly shut down a situation. He said, “I think that’s a good thing.”

In general, the idea of moving away from dynamic entries is good. Most of the horror stories of why militarization of the police is a bad thing have to do with the consequences from dynamic entries and mistakes made in carrying them out.

The message sent was that Davis Police are very cognizant of the concerns surrounding these police tactics and wish to avoid them.

My concern is that it is not clear how much the rest of the police world buys into this approach and whether this is simply the view of the current leadership in Davis. On the one hand, Davis Police are asking for tools that can be used with this new approach – they take their vehicle and use them to be able to be in a secure location to wait out a situation. On the other hand, the uses of the MRAP are not limited to these more benign approaches.

Finally – Darren Pytel acknowledged that the MRAP is not the ideal vehicle for the needs of the Davis Police.

I firmly believe that the movement toward the militarization of the police has been dangerous to individual liberty in this country and has contributed toward a rising animosity between police and citizens in a lot of respects.

There is a tangible component to this, as well as a symbolic one.

Darren Pytel stressed that it does not have to be an MRAP. He said, “We understand the issue on MRAP.” He added, “We also know what it’s like to be using other types of vehicles… there are real advantages to having a more civilian modeled vehicle, including the size.” The size and speed of an MRAP are a problem for urban use. Assistant Chief Pytel expressed concern about apartments and tight quarters in Davis.

An MRAP would likely not be have been workable had this been an apartment complex – of which as we know there are many in Davis. Indeed, the presence of the apartment complex across the street was a huge headache for police trying to seal off the area.

Had this occurred in a school or another area with tight quarters, it would not have worked either.

Many proponents of the MRAP have argued that the cost of this vehicle (free with needed maintenance and adaptation costs) and its availability makes it the preferred choice to other alternatives.

As Councilmember Brett Lee put it, “The choice is the free item which has the negative aspects that it’s a former military vehicle and not designed for civilian use. The flip side is do we spend money for what would probably be the more appropriate vehicle for the community?”

However, as we see from this incident, the MRAP was able to work but they at least felt they needed two to perform their operations under these circumstances. The MRAP would not work at other potential future operations and locations.

Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis told Councilmember Lee that he was willing to put resources into a vehicle that provides protection to the police, however he would argue that the MRAP is really not an appropriate vehicle for our community.

“I would be very willing to put resources into a vehicle that provided protection,” he said.

“Fundamentally I don’t think the vehicle, the MRAP, is adapted to our situation,” he continued. “It does one thing well, it protects people inside.” Citing military literature, he argued, “There’s a lot of disagreement about the value of this vehicle.

“One of the reasons we’re seeing them show up in our communities is because they haven’t worked very well except for one thing – as you’re going down a road, a pretty straight road, a flat road, if a bomb goes off, it will protect everybody inside. That we know. Everyone agrees with that,” the Mayor Pro Tem explained. “Where the disagreement comes in is what happens if you have to wheel it into a tight spot.” He said up hills, uneven terrain, even up driveways are problematic for the vehicle.

“What happens in an urban environment?” he continued. “The consensus there is that it’s not very well adapted.” He called it “a product of really a broken military system. There were five companies that made these.” He said when they “got into theater they couldn’t even find the parts to repair these because they’re specialized parts.”

The projected cost of an alternative is a lot, but if we really believe that the police need this vehicle and we already see limitations on foreseeable future incidents, it makes more sense to find an alternative.

While in the ideal world, I would prefer a more regional approach of vehicle sharing – particularly given the number of times per year that we should have a legitimate need for the vehicle. In the spirit of compromise, I am willing to support the city acquiring a non-military vehicle on the condition that we can have periodic audits of its use, made available in a transparent way to the public. And the added condition that we not attempt to bring an MRAP in from West Sacramento and/or Woodland again.

The history of militarization of the police bears out Mr. Santarelli’s concerns from 1971. I firmly believe that once the police have a toy, they are likely to utilize it in ways that were not conceivable when the decision was first made.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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39 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    As it turns out, the police did not need either MRAP for this incident as Mr. Hein not only was deceased by the time police arrived but he didn’t have the weapon they feared he might have.”

    In this instance, it would seem that what would have been most helpful would have been better information, not better armor.Perhaps that is where we should be concentrating our efforts ? In what incident has an MRAP, or any armored vehicle actually saved the life of anyone in Davis ?  In any comparable community ? Evidence would be very welcome.

    the concern about the MRAP was a concern about the militarization of the police”

    That is one concern.

    Others have been:

    1. Does any given piece of equipment actually improve safety, or only the perception of safety ? Could a false perception of safety actually increase the risk of harm ?

    2. Are there other areas, whether militaristic or not, where we would be better off focusing our resources to improve safety ?

    3. Does focusing on MRAP vs Bearcat prevent us from potentially seeing other possible solutions ?

     

    1. zaqzaq

      “As it turns out, the police did not need either MRAP for this incident as Mr. Hein not only was deceased by the time police arrived but he didn’t have the weapon they feared he might have.”

       

      I guess the proper response was to only send a couple of detectives, the coroner and animal control with no need to determine what the situation was inside the house since the occupants were already dead.  Anything more was a complete waste of resources.  Isn’t hindsight easy.  The hindsight argument posed by many is really getting tiresome as the police must respond in a manner appropriate based on the information on hand at the time.

      Before we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Bearcat or any other vehicle, the police should conduct a detailed comparison of these vehicles to the MRAP.  What I do not want to see is the police taking the position that the Bearcat is the preferable option to the MRAP which you (CC) took away from us.  While the police had not intention of spending the money on it because it is only marginally better and there are more important or effective things that could be done to reduce crime or protect the officers.  There should also be a cost analysis on the maintenance of the two or more vehicles.  I could care less if this vehicle has now or in the past a military application.   The WSPD Peacekeeper was a retired military vehicle which caused no problems in the past when it was used in Davis.

      I think it is not possible to limit the deployment of an MRAP in Davis if the city purchases a Bearcat.  That condition is not rationale.  A situation may develop were more than one vehicle is needed and the police should not be limited in their tactical plan by such a short sighted policy.  It would also have potential liability issues.

      1. David Greenwald

        You’re taking my comment above out of context – it was not intended as a hindsight argument, but an analysis.

        Secondly, the council has the power to limit or exclude an MRAP in Davis.

        1. zaqzaq

          You have been making this same hindsight argument (call it analysis if you want) since the incident.  What relevance does the comment have other than to challenge the decision to bring in the MRAPs which you have criticized since the incident.  The analysis should focus on what they knew when they decided to bring in the MRAPs.

          I did not say that the city council could non “legally” prohibit the deployment of the MRAPs into Davis.  It will only open up the CC for political ridicule, be tactically unsound and open up the city for civil liability.

        2. David Greenwald

          If you read that line in context it goes: “As it turns out, the police did not need either MRAP for this incident, as Mr. Hein not only was deceased by the time police arrived but also he didn’t have the weapon they feared he might have.

          For this incident and future incidents, the need for armor turns on the likelihood of an active shooter situation and the probability that next time the individual will have the high-powered weapon that the police feared was in play in this incident.”

          The point I’m making isn’t a hindsight analysis, I’m pointing out instead that while it didn’t matter in this incident, we need to assess risk for future incidents.

  2. Barack Palin

    As it turns out, the police did not need either MRAP for this incident, as Mr. Hein not only was deceased by the time police arrived but also he didn’t have the weapon they feared he might have.

    Wrong.  The police did need the MRAP’s in order to safely find out that Mr. Hein was indeed deceased and not in possession of the suspected high powered weapon.

    1. Davis Progressive

      sorry i don’t buy into this line.  up until six months ago, no one had an mrap.  somehow the police managed to do these things safely.

      1. Frankly

        DP – First, access to the free MRAP did not exist before, so the police would have been forced to use other tactics that may or may not offer MRAP-level protection.  You could say that business didn’t use computers before 1970’s so by your logic they don’t need them today.

        Also, you only include Davis and the history of Davis law enforcement transactions.  All you have to do is expand your research and consideration to include all law enforcement transactions and this arguments of your falls apart like a Kleenex in a rain storm.  The odds are that the Davis police will encounter situations where the lack of an MRAP is going to be calculated as having contributed to additional harm.  And then all that opposed it will have some splainin’ to do.

        1. Davis Progressive

          while your analogy to computers is fascinating, in the end it falls apart.  a business could survive without computers today, but it would be at a competitive disadvantage.  the police don’t have such considerations.

          i would argue that the strongest argument that davis police put forward is that their tactics are in fact not like those of other departments and have moved away from dynamic entry.  therefore a comparison to other departments hurts rather than helps your case.

          i think the odds that davis police will encounter situations where the lack of an mrap is going to be a problem is greatly overstated.  in the early 70s there was to be a raid on a motorcycle gang.  the officer who had conducted the surveilance was stunned to see a tactical team in paramilitary gear ready to storm the headquarters.  he was insistent and over the objections of the commanding officer prevailed.  they simply knocked on the door and arrested the members of the gang without incident.  had they stormed the property, who knows what the outcome would have been.  there are times when a show of force actually makes the situation more difficult than it needs to be.

        2. Frankly

          a business could survive without computers today, but it would be at a competitive disadvantage.  the police don’t have such considerations.

          I think you are trying to skate around the point.  There is new technology in contractor circular saws that stops the blade from spinning with contact.  Contractors did not have this technology before, and so your point is that they don’t need it now that it is available?

          There are more high-power weapons with more accurate sights and better ammunition.  There are more people in Davis and the state.  There are fewer mental health treatment services.  There are more terrorists.  There are more oil trains.

          The list goes on.

          1. The MRAP is an available tool.

          2. There are greater needs for it.

          It was rejected because of symbolism.

          Going back to the contractor saw comparison, it is like saying that because of the negative symbolism of people losing fingers while using a saw, we should reject the technology that prevents it.

        3. Davis Progressive

          you’re skating around the point as well – none of the examples you provide have a true downside risk of civil liberties and carry the liability of wrongful entry into a home.  you have weigh the risk of having the vehicle versus the risk of not having the vehicle.

        4. Frankly

          I’m glad we get to this explanation.  You don’t trust the police.  You think they are low-browed thugs unable to make good decisions about the use of force and protection.

          So why not demand they all dress in khakis and polo shirts, and carry only a clipboard and box of tissue?

        5. Davis Progressive

          that would misstate my view.  however, i do find it fascinating that conservatives who distrust government, place almost unmitigated trust in those who have guns and weapons and can deprive citizens of rights. i don’t believe police are bad people, just that they are people.

        6. Frankly

          I prefer to deal with the abuse of power head on instead of eliminating access to tools that are useful.

          For example, I would like to see Lois Lerner and other heads of the IRS put on trial and sent to jail if justified for abusing their power to harm conservative groups.  But should we take away email from the employees of the IRS because their managers abuse power?

        7. Davis Progressive

          the tools are part of the problem.  abraham kaplan, a philospher developed the law of the instrument.  it says, when you are carrying around a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

      2. zaqzaq

        In this county they had the Peacekeeper (WSPD) and an old armored car (WPD).  Both have now been replaced by MRAPs as upgrades for older, less efficient vehicles that were ready for retirement to the scrap heap.

  3. Frankly

    The slippery slope is hypersensitivity to symbolism that leads to greater crime and greater harm to innocent people and police officers due to the irrational resistance to tactics and tools that better stop crime and provide better safety to law-abiding people and cops.

    1. Davis Progressive

      your ignoring the reverse problem where the overreliance on tactics and tools make situations more and not less safe.  i illustrated such a case in my other response to you.

      1. Frankly

        Your argument demonstrates a level of disrespect for law enforcement and the job they do.  There is going to be a decision as to what are the proper tools and tactics.  You read the stuff from the Davis PD as to how much consideration went it to their judgement for what tactics and tools to use.  Your point seems to be that the cops will misuse or abuse tools and by preventing the cops from having them we will ensure that they cannot misuse of abuse them.  Again, that is disrespectful to their profession… as anything similar would be to any profession that is faced with critical decision-making responsibility.  The bottom line is that you and other are not qualified to make that call.   But it has not stopped you and others from making the call.  And so future blood will be on the hands of those unqualified people making that call.

        1. Davis Progressive

          my comment demonstrates my distrust of those who yield a huge amount of power.  police have shown time and time again that they misuse and abuse the tools that they have.  furthermore there has been a real concern about both the escalation of heavy-handed tactics as well as the escalation of the misuse of those tactics.

  4. PhilColeman

    “i think the odds that davis police will encounter situations where the lack of an mrap is going to be a problem is greatly overstated.”

    Maybe, maybe not. Returning to the historical perspective that prompted your comment, possibly a determination could be made on the law enforcement injury and fatality rate for instances BEFORE the advent of armored vehicles.

    Comments have been put forth that law enforcement is at much greater risk now. Greater terrorist activity, more mentally unbalanced people in the general population, greater numbers of high-velocity firearms, all have been cited as reasons why. But I’ve seen nothing statistical to pull these factors into a defensible conclusion that armored vehicles do increase officer safety. If such a statistical pattern exists, then we would better know is there is police hyperbole at work here, or not.

    1. Davis Progressive

      phil one of the problems with you argument is that a good case can be made that one of the reasons that police face greater threats is actually in response to the heavy-handed tactics they have practiced in the last forty years or so.   these tactics have greatly increased the distrust in police which also makes their job more dangerous.

      1. Frankly

        I think you and others overplay this theory without any evidence.   You have high sensitivity to heavy-handed tactics of law enforcement and want to make the case that the police are the horse pulling the cart of need for heavy handed tactics.   In other words, it is a sort of self-perpetuating cause-effect machine… use heavy more handed tactics and then need more heavy handed tactics to deal with the response.  If that were the case, why not eliminate firearms and bullet-proof vests from police took kits?  Because you can make the case that any case that police can use those things for heavy-handed tactics too.  In fact, the MRAP is only defensive and for protection.  If you really wanted to eliminate heavy handed tactics by the misuse of tools, it seems weapons would be your target, not a vehicle that provides safety.

        In my rational-brain thinking , heavy-handed tactics should be an option when needed.  If there is a mismatch with tactics and situations, we should demand that the tactics be evaluated for change… not eliminate the useful tools.

        Doctors have a history of doing hysterectomies more than they need.  It is a heavy-handed approach to reduce risk.  So should we disallow the tools doctors use to do hysterectomies because of this?

        1. Davis Progressive

          in the 1980s, san diego had a large number of botched raids – police raiding the wrong house, throwing innocent people around, in one case killing a guy in his living room who was completely innocent.

          under the leadership of a guy named norman stamper, the police instituted a bunch of reforms and moved to a more community based approach.  since 1990, there has been only one botched raid.

          so what happened to crime?  crime in san diego peaked in 1989.  it has been falling since and most years san diego ranks as one of the safest big cities in the country.

        2. Frankly

          First, you only confirmed my point.  Deal with the protocol to fix the problem of over-use of heavy handedness… or if there are too many mistakes… not just eliminate the tools.

          Second, San Diego’s crime rate change does not constituent any evidence of your theory.

  5. LadyNewkBahm

    we needn’t continue this charade.

    If the police didn’t need the MRAP, theyd be against it.

    if the police could demonstrate they did need the MRAP theyd be against it.

    if the MRAP cost millions theyd be against it, if it cost nothing theyd be against it.

    what has come through loud and clear repeatedly and often is “I’m against any and all militarization and my national politics is the overriding concern.”

    the end.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “If the police didn’t need the MRAP, theyd be against it.”

      that’s a tautological argument.  it presumes a lot of things – that the police only ask for what they need and that what they ask for, they need.  if the police ask for warrantless searches of private residences are we bound to give it to them?

  6. Tia Will

    There are fewer mental health treatment services.”

    Perhaps this is where we should be focusing our efforts.

    Amongst the questions that no one appears to have asked the police is, did they consult with any mental health professional experienced in crisis situations when they felt there was a possibility of a an individual potentially considering “death by cop” ?

    It would seem that if they had time to wait for two MRAPS to be put in position, they would have time to consult a mental health specialist ? Is such a service a regular part of the police force ? Do we contract with such a service ? What is the protocol when there is cause to believe that someone who is mentally unstable who is also may or may not be armed ?

  7. Barack Palin

    It would seem that if they had time to wait for two MRAPS to be put in position, they would have time to consult a mental health specialist ?

    Well if we look at it from that standpoint and that of David’s and a few others on here consulting a mental health specialist would’ve been a waste of time because as it turned out both subjects were already deceased.

    1. Tia Will

      BP

      consulting a mental health specialist would’ve been a waste of time because as it turned out both subjects were already deceased.”

      Undeniably true. But also undeniably much less expensive than the acquisition, training and upkeep on two MRAPs.

      1. David Greenwald

        There is a pilot program that is supposed to put the mental health professional on calls with the police – not sure where it stands at the moment.

  8. Tia Will

    Frankly

    So should we disallow the tools doctors use to do hysterectomies because of this?”

    Certainly not. But you are missing a major point which is the development of the alternative strategies that drove the reduction in hysterectomies. It is not that uteruses are causing less problems these days. It is that we have better, less invasive “tools” with which to control the symptoms. We have birth control pills, injections, IUD’s and minimally invasive forms of surgery that did not previously exist. None of this would have come about if we had simply insisted that we needed better protective gear for the surgeons doing the hysterectomy in the unlikely event that they encountered a patient with AIDS or Ebola.

    My consistent point is that we are looking at these issues with too narrow a lens as this case clearly illustrates. The MRAPs were called in because of an unrealized fear of what might have been happening. What if some of these resources were used to prevent what actually was happening ? Might we have had a better outcome if a deteriorating mental state had been detected earlier ? In one of your posts, you correctly acknowledged the paucity of mental health care which I believe to be a much more urgent issue than how many MRAPs to have available. The arguments in favor of the MRAPs usually center around “bad guys” shooting at police deliberately. I would argue that civilians and police are much more likely to encounter an individual who has been mentally destabilized by life circumstances who might be salvageable with early intervention.

  9. Tia Will

    David

    There is a pilot program that is supposed to put the mental health professional on calls with the police – not sure where it stands at the moment.”

    I would love to see the follow up on that when you get the chance.

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