Ferguson lesson: Police can better calm situations (copy)

Police watch the street as protesters gather Tuesday in Ferguson, Mo., after a night of protests and rioting over a grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Police departments around the country have in recent years stepped up their training in "de-escalation" — the art of defusing a tense situation with a word or a gesture instead of being confrontational or reaching for a weapon. 

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

The Trump administration this week said it was making it easier for police departments across the nation to get access to military surplus gear.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the announcement Monday at the national convention of the Fraternal Order of Police. Members of the organization cheered the news and, in fact, the group endorsed President Donald Trump during his campaign after he promised to revive a Pentagon program that makes the surplus gear available to law enforcement agencies across the nation.

Sessions and other administration officials argued that they were acting to make lifesaving gear available to police officers across the nation. And they criticized efforts by President Barack Obama to reform the Pentagon program: "We will not put superficial concerns above public safety," Sessions said.

But it's worth taking a deeper look at what the Pentagon program actually made available to law-enforcement agencies and what the Obama reforms did. It's also worth pondering the differences between the military and police agencies and wondering if it's a good idea to blur the boundaries.

Obama overhauled the Pentagon program in October 2015, about a year after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri focused national attention on the growing militarization of local law-enforcement agencies. In Ferguson and other cities across the nation, protesters faced off against military vehicles and officers dressed in riot gear.

The implication this week from Sessions was that the Obama administration had made it impossible for police agencies to access any military surplus equipment. But that's not true: Instead, an executive order from Obama outlined two different categories of military equipment, "prohibited equipment" and "controlled equipment." The prohibited list was relatively short and included items such as bayonets, grenade launchers and armored vehicles — stuff that would be nice to have if you were going to war against another nation, but perhaps not as useful for police departments charged with keeping the peace in their communities. 

The second category, "controlled equipment," was broader and contained items such as Humvees, riot helmets, battering rams, drones and helicopters, according to a story published on the news site Slate. These items still were available to local agencies, but the administration asked those agencies to draw up guidelines to ensure that they would be used safely, a requirement that frankly does not seem unreasonable.

Before we proceed any further, let us make this point: We have no objection to police departments accessing military equipment if the goal is help ensure the safety of their officers. If, for example, a department wants an armored vehicle to help keep officers out of harm's way during a hostage situation — and has clear and transparent guidelines in place for when and how to use that vehicle — that might be appropriate.

But we find it difficult to imagine a situation in which police officers would require the use of a bayonet or a grenade launcher to conduct their business.

In other words, the Obama administration's guidelines did not strike us as being unreasonable. But rolling back those guidelines will play well among Trump's supporters.

But here's the point that tends to get lost in all of this: It's a mistake to treat police departments as extensions of the military. Their missions are fundamentally different. In fact, the push to militarize law enforcement agencies runs the real risk of undercutting efforts to develop the culture of community policing that so many law enforcement agencies have worked so long to develop.

We want to protect law officers to the fullest extent possible as they go about their essential and often dangerous duties. But anything that runs the risk of undercutting the essential trust between those agencies and the communities they serve does not help to keep officers safe. (mm)


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