Stop the Militarization of Local Police Departments

11129568566_505d15bc38_oNew Orleans     The aftermath of tragic violence and protest in Ferguson, Missouri has reignited recognition of the continuing racial divide in the United States. It is hardly a surprise that African-Americans and whites continue to see things so differently, but while searching for an area where there is high agreement, I think I’ve found one. Both whites and blacks oppose the extreme militarization of local police forces!

Of course the opposition is not exactly the same. According to polling 65% of whites believe that military grade weaponry should be kept with the military, while 80% of blacks believe that, but any way you slice it, the public seems to have a high level of consensus that they would rather hope that the police are there to protect them, rather than worrying about whether they are in danger from the police.

I also call New Orleans home where this is not just a sensitive issue in the community, but an article of faith that people are well advised to give the police a wide berth. Recently a 17-year prison sentence for a former police officer was reaffirmed by the courts for his having burned a dead, post-Katrina victim of a police shooting in a car along the Mississippi River levee. Long heeded advice from parents to children and residents to tourists has been to make sure that if they witness a policeman beating someone in the French Quarter do not get involved, or you will also go to jail. In recent years, the district police station was located down the block on my street while their flooded station was rebuilt. Weeks ago, we all felt safer when they moved. The only good thing I saw in the chart of where military surplus had been distributed was that the New Orleans police department seemed to have only received night vision goggles. If they actually look before they shoot, that would indeed be a gift here.

Why in the world would Randolph County, Arkansas need a military airplane? What possible need could they have for such a piece of equipment? Randolph County is in the northeastern part of the state. Pocahontas is the largest city, but it’s not large. There are only 17,000 people that live in the whole county, abutting the Missouri state line. 96% of the county is white. Are they thinking about seceding from the state of Arkansas? What possibly could be their plan?

New Mexico ended up with more than forty anti-mine, armored vehicles, topping Texas with thirty-six. Is this what Governor Rick Perry and others think might be useful in stopping refugee children coming to the border?

You have to wonder how many SWAT teams we need to have, dressed in full-military gear. Are police preparing for the “zombie apocalypse” already? What type of officers are we trying to recruit with these war zone fantasies replacing the mission of community policing and public safety?

The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade into a house and creeping through a field in camouflage.

When 68% of the American people agree on anything these days, especially in the racially charged atmosphere of Ferguson, it should not only be cause for celebration but an urgent cry for immediate action. The consensus from black and white is that the federal government needs to stop enabling the militarization of local police departments, and they need to step back from some of their gung-ho, GI-Joe stuff, and look harder at protect-and-serve, rather than shoot-to-kill with the bombs bursting.

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